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Mental Capacity Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:00 pm on 1st February 2005.

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Photo of Lord Winston Lord Winston Labour 4:00 pm, 1st February 2005

Because food is given out by the housekeeping department, that does not in any way absolve the nursing on the ward from responsibility for the care of the patient. In speaking to the four amendments, as a central moral principle, I have—just like the people who have tabled the amendments—the notion of the fundamental sanctity of human life, which is the central pillar of all our morality.

I am also aware of the British Geriatrics Society and its 1,400 members who very largely oppose euthanasia and totally oppose the notion of assisted dying, as I do. But I do not believe that these amendments are helpful. The truth is that illness at this stage is too diverse and too complex to be decided in this way: it has to be left to the individual circumstance.

I do not want to dwell personally too much, but four weeks ago my mother, aged 92, was admitted to hospital with severe diabetes and cellulitis of the leg, which can easily kill a diabetic. That needed massive antibiotic therapy; namely, four grams of flucloxacillin and four grams of ampicillyn every six hours. When that was not tolerated by mouth, the question was whether it could be given by intra-muscular injection. Clearly, that would be totally unacceptable and an extremely torturous thing to do.

When my mother was conscious and able to refuse, she refused to have an intravenous line put up. Sometimes, of course, she was just unconscious and not able to refuse. But putting a line up was excessively difficult. I watched her nursing with great concern. Throughout the two weeks that my mother was in hospital, a close member of my family sat with her throughout the day until 11 p.m. So I saw exactly the nursing in that ward, not only with my mother but also with other people who were often in extremis.

On one occasion, I was so distressed by the attempts of the quite senior registrar to put up an intravenous line that I said, "Hold on a bit. I am surgically qualified. Would you like me to have a go?". It is not easy to put up an intravenous line on one's mother. I got it into the vein, but it immediately clogged up. At that point, one has to make an individual decision. Basically, one asks oneself, "Do I go on accepting that my mother will be tortured by repeated attempts at veinipuncture or do I accept that her autonomy in this situation is really rather important?".

I came to the conclusion that if my mother was to die in that situation, her dignity should be respected. To continue to offer her that treatment, which probably would not help anyway, was unacceptable. It was an individual decision made by me as a relative, as geriatricians frequently have to do in consultation with relatives.

I do not understand this, but, remarkably, someone intervened. In spite of my mother not having that massive antibiotic therapy, after 48 hours the cellulitis resolved. She had no treatment, nor was she properly drinking or properly hydrated most of the time. She could not tolerate fluids because she was vomiting everything. But her leg started to get better and two weeks after her admission she was discharged from hospital. She has been at home for the past four weeks.

There comes a point when we should accept amendments to a Bill, which already covers those issues. This Bill strengthens practice; it does not diminish it. I doubt whether these amendments would allow for the individual circumstances of patients under proper medical care where there is not a dereliction of duty of medical practice, as my noble friend Lord Turnberg has mentioned.

I have to apologise to Members of the Committee. I would like to hear the response to the amendment from my noble friend the Minister. But, during Question Time, I heard that, four weeks after my mother's discharge, she has been admitted to hospital in coma again. I intend to leave Westminster as soon as I can. I shall sit for another half an hour, because I think that she is still being triaged in casualty. But I doubt whether I shall be able to stay until the end of these amendments.