Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:17 pm on 10th October 2005.

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Photo of Lord May of Oxford Lord May of Oxford Crossbench 10:17 pm, 10th October 2005

My Lords, I wish to express my appreciation for the Select Committee's report and also to explain why I support the principles set out in the original Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Joffe. There seem to be, broadly, at least two distinct categories of objection to assisted dying, both of which deserve respect. Quite apart from that, I see the discussion of further investment in improving palliative care as a distraction. Of course we should be doing that as well.

The first category deals with practical issues. There is the worry that the Bill could lead to terminally ill people being coerced into death earlier than desired, which is one aspect of the slippery slope. Another legitimate worry is that medical practitioners could be asked to act in ways contrary to their personal beliefs—my noble friend Lord Lewis referred to the imposition on the medical profession—and there are others. I believe that careful crafting of a Bill on assisted dying—indeed, the original Bill offered by my noble friend Lord Joffe—can deal effectively with such worries, although, of course, consideration should be given to the further recommendations made in the Select Committee's report.

The second category of objections derives in essence from personal beliefs—often, but not always, religious beliefs—which in their strongest form can equate assisted dying with murder. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury put it with admirable clarity in the Mail at the weekend, when he said that life is a gift from God, with the corollary that it is up to God, not the individual, to decide when to end it.

Essentially, this is an argument about how the rights of the individual are weighed against the rights of the community. Many of the anguished debates in this House are about such weighing of the rights of the individual against the rights of the community, whether the issue is as trivial as fireworks or as large as terrorism. But it is my belief that this is a subject in which primacy should be given to the right of the individual to choose, if she or he so desires, to avoid extreme suffering and to die with dignity.

But my values, shared with many noble Lords, derive from the Enlightenment: plurality, individual liberty of conscience and empirical evidence as the best way to formulate policy. In this latter context I applaud the excellent report from the Select Committee. Some of its facts bear repetition. Studies in the Netherlands and in Oregon show no signs of increasing rates of assisted dying, no slippery slope and, indeed, in the Netherlands doctors are if anything interpreting the rules more strictly over time, as reported on page 395 of the Lancet, Volume 362.

Indications in Oregon suggest that hospice referrals and the attendance of doctors at palliative care conferences have increased since 1997. Indeed, there has been a longer time-span in which to observe that than there has been in Holland. Studies in Oregon and the Netherlands suggest that many, perhaps even most, of those obtaining prescriptions for the lethal cocktail do not use it. Quoted in the New Scientist earlier this year, the director of the Netherlands Right to Die Society said, succinctly and tellingly, that,

"no longer obsessed by their fear of death, they can spend their energy on living the life that is left to them".

Finally, even acknowledging the faults of all public opinion polls, it is clear that the principles set out in my noble friend Lord Joffe's original Bill command wide—roughly 80 per cent—public support. I hope that I misunderstood the noble Lord, Lord Carter, when he seemed to suggest that the other place is nevertheless unlikely to make time to consider a new Bill from my noble friend in this Parliament. That would be outrageous, given the time the other place has devoted, for example, to concerns for self-determination for foxes.

So I welcome the report of the Select Committee in all its fair-minded complexity. I hope that my noble friend will bring forward a new Bill and that the Government will make time for it in both Houses.