Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:23 pm on 10th October 2005.

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Photo of Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Lord Griffiths of Burry Port Labour 10:23 pm, 10th October 2005

My Lords, the hour is late, and I am number 64 in the batting order. We have heard legal, moral, medical, philosophical and theological views put forward. At this stage perhaps it may be of some consolation that another angle may be opened up, for the line of argument that I want to put to noble Lords is pastoral. I am a Methodist minister; that is my day job. I come to this place to hear the distilled wisdom of your Lordships speaking in such debates. My angle of view allows me to be with people in suffering, from their first reported symptoms right through to after the death and bereavement. That is a long period of contact with those going through the critical stages that we have been discussing today.

It is of course a privilege to be present in homes in very private conditions where people other than immediate family are not normally welcome. In homes and in hospitals I have been able to join the loved ones of the dying of all ages, including children. For a number of years I was chaplain at the Middlesex University Hospital after the opening of the new ward to treat adolescents with cancer. So I have seen my fair share of deathbeds, and I have wrestled very hard with some of the questions that have arisen from them.

We were told earlier in the debate that human conditions required human solutions. Nothing about the fact that I believe in God protects me from feeling very human and vulnerable at some of the moments I can think of. I have looked at the sufferer, with pain and agony sometimes, and my only wish for that person has been that they would go now. I think of the carers and the anguish written into their faces. I have wanted for them only that they be released from what, in my view as an observer, is clearly a huge burden. Then there is my plea to God himself that if he had the power he would do something to switch the machine off now and relieve us all from the squalid drama going on in front of our eyes. Oh yes, I have had plenty of moments like that, but they do not prevail, and that is not what it is all about. When it is all over, I have engaged with families in an analysis of what has happened. There is the grief first of all; there is the anger; and, supremely, there is the guilt. How often have I heard the question, "Did we do all we could? Were our thoughts unworthy when we wanted him to die?". You cannot put the clock back then, of course.

I do not want to raise the weasel words of the debate, as I might define them, of "autonomy", "sanctity of life" and "slippery slopes", which have meant different things to different people as the debate has unfolded, but there have been things in the course of the debate that have struck me with great force. The phrase of the noble Lord, Lord Brennan, that the legislation would represent a change of ethos was a strong phrase. The reference to the need for an improvement in and an extension of the provision of palliative care has been a resounding theme repeated again and again. I shall not forget the story told by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, at the beginning of the debate about the young man who met all the criteria that would have made an assisted suicide very appropriate in the circumstances but who went on to other outcomes of a radically different nature and who now remains the lone parent, years later, looking after the family.

From the welter of documentation that I and all other noble Lords have received I pick out a paragraph from the midst of the neutrality of the Royal College of Physicians, which has come out with some fairly startling facts for us to consider. It states:

"It will be evident from the foregoing that the management of the dying patient, and, more specifically a clear understanding of the issues surrounding the request for assisted dying, both require a high level of competence in making the complex diagnoses. Anyone involved in the assisted dying process should have received rigorous training in how to discuss these issues with patients and with their supporters; in the legal framework of assisted dying; in the appropriate methods of assisting patients to die; and in the context and settings in which this should take place".

That will not be cheap or easy to achieve. The unquantified cost implications of putting what seems such a simple proposal into law needs to be put before us too.

It is the enshrining of difficult cases in the framework of law that worries me greatly. Assisted dying is what it is all about. I want to assist people in dying by adding value to their last moments; by showing solidarity with them in their last days; and by surrounding them with care and love so that in a context of reciprocity and support they can die with the dignity that they deserve. It is not only by framing a law and helping to foreshorten people's lives that you achieve that outcome.