Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:11 pm on 10th October 2005.

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Photo of Lord Brennan Lord Brennan Labour 9:11 pm, 10th October 2005

My Lords, this debate should not be afflicted either by religious extremism towards the secular thinker or secular bigotry towards the religious believer. It is important—is it not?—that we attach to this problem disciplined thinking and clear analysis. After the rather ironic comments suggesting that a secular contribution is the expression of an opinion but that that coming from a religious believer seeks to impose an opinion, I am gratified that my noble friend Lord Plant, a good Christian man, in his reasoned analysis supports the Bill. I will seek to emulate him as a Christian by opposing it by a reasoned analysis.

The present law forbids euthanasia because it is thought that that state of the law protects the common good. The Bill will damage the common good in the following ways. First, patient autonomy cannot prevail against the common good. There is no right to assisted dying. To assert that assisted dying is a private matter is an abuse of language. It occurs because you need a doctor or a nurse to effect the conclusion. To say that a doctor who refuses to do that is playing God I find incomprehensible. If his duty is to preserve life and he wishes to have no part in causing death, the concept of playing God becomes bizarre.

The state exists to protect people against intentional private killing. It is completely illogical to suggest that laws directed at preventing it or allowing it are not public but private. If it is allowed, it will damage the common good. First, it will produce a divided profession. The noble Lord, Lord Patel, tells us that medicine is divided on the issue—we do not know in what proportions. If it is divided, what happens to the medical ethos? There are those who wish to preserve life—within reason—and those who will be ready to end it on request. That is a fundamental difference of ethos, so described by the BMA in spring last year.

What of the example of the hospice patient, as the noble Lord, Lord Cavendish, described? Is the fear and apprehension that is created in the common good? How many patients are we talking about? Are we talking about the 350 or 360 that the noble Earl, Lord Arran, mentioned, or the 650 which the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, mentioned on the radio this morning? Are we talking about the intelligent, clear-thinking, controlling minds or are we talking about everyone? I have found the presentation of the debate thus far by its proponents to be extremely confused.

If assisted dying is only for the intelligent clear thinker, why so? Why discriminate against those with a marginally less intelligent analysis but who have the same emotional desire? These are all serious questions. Who is to perform the act? Is it to be by prescription through the doctor and not by dispatch from the doctor? If it is not dispatched by the doctor, who is going to do it? The patient will receive it from someone. How do we control it? To put it bluntly, do we have some kind of "Ofdead" regulatory system in this field of life and death? It seems astonishing.

I shall make two further, short points. When the disabled people we care for seek our help for their needs, are we to patronise them when they express to us their fears? What will happen in the future if quality of life is a factor in the giving or withholding of treatment? Is it sensibly to be argued that some doctors will not take into account the economic factor in determining whether to end a patient's life at their request, or even advise them in a way that is directed at the economic well-being of other patients who need treatment? It is too idealistic to think that that will not be the fact.

As regards the slippery slope, looking at this issue with intellectual discipline, I find it surprising that, from Oregon, the Netherlands and Switzerland, a system of self-reporting by doctors should be regarded as a proper analytical basis for considered action of this gravity. Would we do it in any other walk of life? Of course, we would not.

My final point is on the position of the medical profession. If the common good wants trust in doctors, doctors should tell society what they want to give society through medical care. The BMA maintained its position for 30 years. It has changed it in a rather tawdry exercise in procedural stratagems. It did so with an 11-vote majority on a vote of 175 from a membership of more than 100,000. Let us compare that with the Royal College of General Practitioners. When its executive sought to be neutral, it insisted on its members' opinion being taken and the majority clearly went against euthanasia. That has not happened yet with the BMA.

This report is surely the occasion for informed debate by the public. Paragraph 232 and Appendix 7 categorically warn against the present state of public opinion being thought to be reliable. It clearly states that we need further work. I conclude with one short remark. No one who values liberty should want to reduce the ending of life itself to just another lifestyle choice. Is that the society in which we live.