Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:47 pm on 10th October 2005.

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Photo of The Bishop of Oxford The Bishop of Oxford Bishop 5:47 pm, 10th October 2005

I very much respect the serious intentions of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, and the care that he has taken with the Bill to try to limit any possible damage. I should also like to say to the Select Committee, as a person who was not a member of it, how valuable the report was. It was a model of clarity and helpfulness.

It has been suggested or hinted a number of times that the main arguments against the Bill are on religious grounds. There are some religious arguments, and it may be that some of them will strengthen arguments of another kind. But I know that the right reverend Prelates the Bishops of St Albans and of London, and myself, believe that these are rational arguments that can be considered by rational people whatever their religious views.

A leading article in the Guardian this morning said that the bishops,

"should be listened to with respect—and then ignored".

I feel like writing to the Guardian and asking if it would please assess the rationality of our arguments. That is very much what I hope your Lordships will do.

I believe that there is a fundamental philosophical flaw behind this Bill which, indeed, would be behind any successor Bill. It concerns autonomy, which cannot be taken as the overriding principle. In some respects all noble Lords would accept that. But Professor John Harris, who has been very influential and been quoted in the Select Committee report, stated:

"It is only by the exercise of autonomy that our lives become in any real sense our own. The ending of our lives determines life's final shape and meaning . . . when we are denied control of the end of our lives, we are denied autonomy".

What worries me about that quotation is that there is a sense that if we are denied autonomy—the ability to make a choice at the end of our lives—our lives somehow lose shape and meaning. I suggest that our lives have just as much shape, meaning and value when we are in positions of total dependence on other people. For much of our lives we are dependent on other people and may not be capable of making significant choices at all—in the womb, as a child, through periods of sickness, and perhaps for quite a long period at the end of our life. A loss of autonomy does not signify any loss of meaning or value from our lives.

Here, we need to face the fact that, as was once put rather brilliantly, mind is a social reality. We become persons in relation to other persons. There is a western idea that has been with us since certainly the 18th if not the 17th century: we are essentially human beings only if we are standing on our own and making heroic choices. That is a totally flawed understanding of what it is to be a human being. We are interdependent, there is mutuality, and our meaning and value are discovered just as much through other people's attitudes to us when we are dependent as they are in the choices that we make.

I know that the noble Baroness, Lady David, felt rather insulted by the reference to people with strong personalities wanting to be in control of their lives. I point out to the noble Baroness that that was in the Select Committee report as evidence of the kind of people who are seeking this measure. In contrast to that, we need to pay attention to the point in our lives when we are dependent on others. We should realise that at those times we in no way lose meaning or value.

There is time for only one other point, which is in reference to the well known "policeman's dilemma". A motor accident leaves a lorry driver trapped in his burning cab. He cannot be freed and he asks a policeman to shoot him before he agonisingly burns to death. Many of us here—I am certainly one—would not judge a person in that situation to be wrong. But Professor Harris says:

"If we concede this case, then we concede the principle of assisting death in extreme distress and where the condition, as the lorry driver's was, is clearly the terminal one".

I do not believe that to be true. There are certain boundary situations where agonising choices have to be made. There are certain exceptions. But you cannot take from those exceptions general principles of prescriptions and laws. St Thomas Aquinas gave a well known example. He said that if a person who is starving to death steals when there is no other way of obtaining food, he is not guilty of theft. That is a similar boundary situation but we would not dream of legislating for that. The fact that we concede the policeman's dilemma should not bemuse us into thinking that we should therefore legislate. The point about exceptions is that they really are exceptions, and we do not want to legislate for them.