Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:36 pm on 10th October 2005.

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Photo of Lord Lipsey Lord Lipsey Labour 10:36 pm, 10th October 2005

My Lords, my first-ever public speech, in the Oxford Union nearly 40 years ago, was in support of euthanasia, an issue about which I have thought again only this summer. Since I made that speech, the argument has moved forward in two significant regards. The first, much remarked on tonight, is the improvement in our care of the dying— stronger drugs for pain control, a greater willingness on the part of doctors to prescribe them to those who need them, and the wonderful growth of the hospice movement although it is common ground on all sides of the House that we need to do more to improve palliative care and hospice care.

The other factor, which has not been remarked on, is that the diseases that used to carry people off to a merciful death are now terribly treatable—pneumonia, for example, the old man's friend. People with the most appalling neurological afflictions in particular can linger on and be kept alive by modern medicine for years and years.

Those two arguments point in contrary directions and they are as difficult to weigh today as they were then, although the Select Committee has done a wonderful job in putting the considerations on every side. While I am on balance in favour of change, I am much concerned about the notion that old people will somehow feel obligated to end their lives out of a false sense of the burden which they are imposing on others.

I want to draw one contrast between those who favour a change in the law and those who do not. The noble Lord, Lord Joffe, whose efforts are commended even by those who strongly disagree with him, is a very rare creature. He is a man who changes his mind in response to evidence. I know this because I sat with him on the Royal Commission on Long-Term Care of the Elderly, and he was persuaded there to drop his original predisposition in favour of spending money on better care rather than providing it free to the better-off. He has changed his mind quite a bit on this Bill—I am not sure he is right to have done so—to put in additional safeguards.

I am afraid that the same does not apply to most of the opponents of the Bill. The right reverend Prelates the Bishop of Oxford and the Bishop of London both told us to listen to their arguments. The trouble is that I suspect that, whatever was done to refute or demolish those arguments, they would still hold the same position, which is deeply rooted in their faith. They are entitled to have that opinion, but we should recognise that difference between the proponents and opponents.

I do not therefore have any hope of convincing those fundamental opponents, but I would just make to them two incredibly simple points at the end of a complex and subtle debate.

First, I respect and enormously admire people's willingness to declare for themselves that however ghastly their sufferings at their end—and for all that palliative care can provide, it cannot alleviate every suffering; we have heard from noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, about motor neurone disease—they commit themselves in advance to accepting those sufferings, because that is in accord with their belief. What I cannot respect and admire is their willingness to impose their commitment on others, using to do so the law of the land, a land that is increasingly a secular land that does not share those particular values.

Secondly, although I am no theologian, it seems to me as a simple soul that to condemn many of your fellow human beings to an agonised, undignified and unchosen end in the name of your abstract principles is a bit unchristian.