Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:31 pm on 10th October 2005.

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Photo of Baroness Emerton Baroness Emerton Crossbench 9:31 pm, 10th October 2005

My Lords, I, too, pay tribute to the committee so ably chaired by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, which produced such a balanced report with clarity on such complex and sensitive issues.

I speak as a retired nurse with 53 years of experience in the profession. I have two brief points to make from a nursing perspective. First, there is the nurse-patient relationship. Consistently, research shows that 80 per cent of care delivered to patients is provided by nurses. Given that wealth of experience, it is regrettable that their unique position and expert contribution has been omitted from the draft legislation. That is particularly so in the light of evidence that nurses play a crucially important role in supporting patients and relatives at the end of life, particularly Macmillan, Marie Curie, hospice, hospital and community nurses.

Virginia Henderson, an eminent professor of nursing from the United States, defines nursing thus:

"The unique function of the nurse is to assist the individual, sick or well, in the performance of those activities contributing to health or its recovery or to a peaceful death that he would perform unaided if he had the necessary strength".

I strongly believe that the introduction of a law relating to assisted dying would seriously damage and compromise the nurse-patient relationship, leading to fear of that option at the most vulnerable time in patients' lives. Respect for the intrinsic value of life is central to the nursing profession. Midwives and nurses caring for women undergoing termination of pregnancy have the right to refuse to participate in the procedure on the grounds of conscientious objection. Other nurses do not have, and would not want, that option in these circumstances.

Secondly, if patients believe that they have no other choice or option but to ask the clinical professions for help in committing suicide, those professions and society have failed them. Palliative care in this country, as we have heard this afternoon, is the envy of the world. We have become skilled in the management of pain and in symptom control, particularly for those with cancer, but we cannot be complacent. We need to continue our research to find new ways to relieve distressing symptoms, particularly for those with neurological conditions.

It is also important to recognise that palliative care is not just pain control by drugs. "Palliative" derives from the Greek word pallios, meaning "shield". As well as physical care by drug therapy, the psychological, emotional, spiritual or even financial impact of a diagnosis or suspected diagnosis of a disease that might be life-threatening is very much an area where highly trained and skilled palliative nurses can assist a patient through the darkest times with care and compassion towards a peaceful and dignified death, as opposed to the indignity of an unnatural death. Certainly, I can testify to nursing, as a member of a healthcare professional team, many patients under the shield of palliative care, delivering clinical, psychological, emotional and spiritual support within the banner of holistic care. There are of course regrettable circumstances, as described by the noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, but that demonstrates the urgent need for resources for providing high-quality care for the dying.

The Royal College of Nursing, which represents 370,000 nurses as a professional organisation, opposes the legalising of assisted dying. The noble Viscount, Lord Craigavon, questioned how accurately it represents the total number of nurses. It would be impossible to consult 370,000 nurses and come out with a unanimous answer. It is a majority answer. Certainly, some nurses choose to support voluntary euthanasia.

The pathway to death is one that we each have to travel. The key to achieving improvements in the care and treatment of dying people is, as a priority, further investment of resources in training for existing and new doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals, as well as the development of hospice and palliative care, not the introduction of the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill.