Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:54 pm on 10th October 2005.

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Photo of Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen Baroness Gibson of Market Rasen Labour 5:54 pm, 10th October 2005

My Lords, I, too, congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and his committee members on their well balanced report.

There is no doubt that those who support and those who oppose the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, hold genuine and sincerely held views upon it, and that, as usual in your Lordship's Chamber, the debate is being conducted with respect for each other's views.

Many of us know people who believe their lives to be painful beyond tolerance, and we all wish such suffering to be alleviated. Where we are divided is on whether, and how much, help should be given to terminally ill people to end their lives, should they wish to do so. I put my name down to speak in this debate before our long summer break began. I believed in the proposals in the Bill then and I believe in them now.

During the summer, a number of events strengthened my support for such legislation. I watched a television debate on the Bill. An intelligent and articulate woman, with an equally intelligent and articulate brother, explained why she helped him to die peacefully and, as they put it, with dignity. A key reason was that the brother, whose intellect remained, was slowly losing his ability to articulate, and his misery and frustration at his illness and loss of faculties was almost tangible through the television set.

The brother and sister travelled abroad to achieve his aims—to end his life in what he described as a dignified manner at a time of his choosing with those he loved most with him. His quiet determination shone out of the film that the family had made of his illness and of the decisions he took about it.

Almost on the same day, I received a letter from a young woman with a terminal illness. Indeed, it may be the same letter as that received by the noble Lord, Lord Russell-Johnston, who mentioned it in his speech. The young woman is 28 years old and has heart and lung problems, causing her to deteriorate slowly. She uses oxygen constantly and is severely physically limited. She has been told that she will continue to deteriorate. She wrote:

"Because the current law forbids assisted dying, I have had to make the decision to starve myself to death. This could take some time and may cause even more physical pain. I have, however, come to the conclusion that starving myself to death is more favourable than living as I do".

She does not want to travel abroad; she wants to die in her own country. She pleads with us to listen to our public and to hear their voices. The Bill, which is the subject of this report, would allow her to die in the way she wishes at a time she chooses. I do not believe that we have a right to deny her that.

I also received a moving letter from a young woman about her father's death. He had wished to be helped to die. She wrote:

"Having the right to decide the time to die would give the patient control at the end and make the process less frightening because the terminally ill person is the only one who knows when he or she wants to pass away. It is their perception of dignity which is important".

I believe that that is true.

Obviously I have received letters both for and against changing the legislation, as I am sure we all have, from individuals and associations, and I shall mention just one or two. I was particularly grateful to the BMA and the GMC. They both clearly set out their stance on future legislation, which in both cases is neutral. I had heard from doctors for and against the proposed legislation, with both sides claiming the backing of the BMA and the GMC, and so I was relieved to have this issue cleared up. I understand that both organisations have said that, if such a Bill became law, they would be able to publish guidelines to underpin the practice.

A further letter came from the disability committee of the National Union of Students. The committee members are elected representatives of students who have various disabilities, both seen and hidden. They support such a Bill, believing that it will protect vulnerable disabled people more than the current law does. On the other hand, RADAR, for which I have a great deal of respect and with which I have worked in the past through my work at my union, Amicus, sent a very thoughtful briefing in which it explained why it cannot support the introduction of the proposed legislation at this time. But it stressed the need for better and increasing palliative care—a point with which I agree wholeheartedly.

As do others in the Chamber, I believe in the expansion and extension of palliative care. I believe that those who choose to receive it must have the best treatment possible and that equitable access to palliative care for all should be provided. That is in line with the response of the National Council of Palliative Care to the report on the Bill. I differ from the NCPC in that I do not believe that this must be provided before pursuing assisted dying for the terminally ill. It is possible to press for better palliative care at the same time as allowing the assisted dying option for those who choose to take that route. Palliative care and assisted dying are not mutually exclusive. Both are needed, and should be allowed.

Finally, I am sure that if a new Bill is introduced, it will be discussed in depth in this House. I am also sure that improvements will be made during those discussions and amendments. I support the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, in his efforts to bring forward well-constructed legislation in this difficult area.