Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:29 pm on 10th October 2005.

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Photo of Lord Northbourne Lord Northbourne Crossbench 10:29 pm, 10th October 2005

My Lords, I had not intended to speak in the debate, but when I read the excellent report produced by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, and his team I realised that there seemed to be something lacking.

The report places very strong emphasis, on the one hand, on the sanctity of human life and, on the other hand, on the right to personal autonomy. The lack of emphasis that surprised me in the committee's report arises from the fact that, although there is a lot about the suffering of terminally ill people and about the dilemmas that would face doctors if law along the lines of the Bill were ever enacted, there is next to nothing about the families of those who might end their life through assisted suicide or euthanasia, especially very close relations—the spouses, the children and, in some cases, alas, the parents. Those issues have been mentioned in the debate in one way or another by the noble Baroness, Lady Flather, the noble Lords, Lord Lucas, Lord Turnberg and Lord Elton, and the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey of Clifton.

The Bill seems to regard people who want medical assistance to end their life as being a world in their own right. There is no requirement in the Bill to consult or even to notify the family of someone planning to take their life in that way. Clause 9 contains a requirement that the attending physician should recommend to the applicant that he or she or his or her next of kin should be notified, but he or she is not obliged to do so. I understand the need for patient confidentiality, and I understand the need for a sense of autonomy, but human beings are, with minor exceptions, social animals. We each rely and depend on our friends, nursing staff or, if we are reasonably lucky, the love and care of our family or those members of our family who are still alive to care for us.

There is an issue of trust in that family and that group. I suggest that, if the Bill is to return to the House, rather more care and thought should be given to the effect on families of taking the decision. That can operate in either way—I am not arguing in favour of the Bill or against it. More consideration should be given to the role that the family plays—the trust, the love and the support that it offers people, especially those suffering from a terminal illness and all the stresses and problems that that involves.

The death of a family member often has a huge impact on other members. It is a mistake, in my view, to see this only as a personal act. It was John Donne who said:

"No man is an island".

We seem, in a sense, to have forgotten that. It is late, and I do not think that I need say any more. I have made the point that I wanted to make.