Dame Esther Rantzen calls on MPs to think of loved ones in assisted dying debate

Dame Esther Rantzen has called on MPs to think of their loved ones and the peaceful end they would wish for them as she accused politicians of avoiding a debate on assisted dying because it will not get them votes.

The Childline founder and broadcaster, 83, has stage four lung cancer and earlier this week said she has joined the assisted dying clinic Dignitas.

She wants a free vote on assisted dying, saying she believes the majority of the public think people should have a right to choose.

The broadcaster said the national conversation triggered by her Dignitas revelation – made on the BBC’s The Today Podcast – has “come as a surprise”.

Dame Esther Rantzen illness
Dame Esther Rantzen wants MPs to have a free vote on the issue of assisted dying (PA)

She told the PA news agency: “I would say to parliamentarians, ‘Think of the people you love in your own life, maybe who are older, maybe who are unwell, and think how you would wish them to spend their last days and weeks’.

“It is agonising to watch someone you love suffer. Nobody wants that for their family. And we live in a day and age when it’s perfectly possible to offer people a gentle, peaceful death.

“I know the memory of a bad death obliterates the happy memories that you would want to hang on to, but the memory of a good death is comforting for all those involved.

“So I would say to parliamentarians, ‘Make this personal because there is no more personal decision than your own life or your own death. Make this personal, think this through and then put it on the national agenda. Debate it carefully. And come, we hope, to a humane decision’.”

Assisted suicide is banned in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.

In Scotland, it is not a specific criminal offence but assisting the death of someone can leave a person open to murder or other charges.

Legislation is being put forward by Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur, with the Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults (Scotland) Bill due to come before Holyrood next year.

The Health and Social Care Committee is due to publish its report into assisted dying and assisted suicide in England and Wales, having launched an inquiry in December 2022 to examine different perspectives in the debate.

Dame Esther said: “To the government committee: get on with it. Some of us haven’t got time to hang around and wait for you to make up your mind.”

She added: “I should imagine that one of their obvious findings is that the vast majority of the public believe that one should have the right to choose, and that’s all I’m asking for.

“I’m not saying that this should be imposed on people. I’m saying that these days we have an autonomy over our lives because medicine has made such giant steps.

“But the one area we don’t have autonomy is choosing if we want to end it, except by suicide.”

Chelsea Flower Show 2018
Dame Esther, pictured in 2018, has a rare EGFR-positive cancer (PA)

She continued: “But as those around me, including my daughter (Rebecca Wilcox), said, it’s very important that we have this debate on a regular basis because it’s so tempting for parliamentarians to avoid it because they know there are very strong feelings.

“It is divisive, they don’t think it’s going to get them any votes and they’d rather stay out of that debate – but they mustn’t.

“I suppose 99% of all families in this country will at some stage be placed in the dilemma of trying to make the end of some loved individual in their family as peaceful, private and dignified as possible, because that is what we all want for ourselves and for the people we love.”

Dame Esther said she has a rare EGFR-positive cancer, which is being treated by a so-called ‘miracle drug’ called osimertinib.

She continued: “I have a fantastic local hospice who are in regular touch with me. And they try to reassure me by telling me that most people who have lung cancer, which I have, gently drift away and don’t have the sort of agonising death that I’m trying to avoid.

“But some do. It’s a small percentage but some do, and so they cannot completely reassure me, give me the confidence, that I think people in this country should have.”

Asked if she has spoken to any MPs about the issue, Dame Esther said: “I haven’t discussed this. I did not plan this as a campaign, my last campaign.

“I didn’t plan it, it just happened because I was talking about my own dilemma. I haven’t been approached by anyone in politics.

“I do think the public has now had enough of being ignored in this really crucial life-and-death issue. They really want change now.”

Dame Esther said she is willing to take on the mantle of campaigning at the end of her life, saying: “Absolutely. I’ve had so much response from people who feel they haven’t been heard, but who agree with me, and for whom it is an urgent consideration.”