Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:01 pm on 10th October 2005.

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Photo of Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar Lord Gilmour of Craigmillar Conservative 6:01 pm, 10th October 2005

My Lords, we have heard strong speeches on both sides. I shall look briefly at the arguments against the Bill.

The strongest argument against the Bill, of course, is that assisted dying may enable jealous and tiresome relatives, or others, to persuade old people to agree to be killed because they think that they have become an intolerable burden to their children and friends. However, the Bill provides stringent safeguards against that happening. It has not happened in Oregon, as my noble friend Lord Arran made clear, and, as the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, said, it has not happened in Holland. Moreover, the Joint Committee on Human Rights decided that the safeguards in the Bill were adequate to protect the vulnerable.

Secondly, there is the slippery slope argument, which maintains that, if the Bill is passed, all sorts of dreadful Bills or actions will be passed in future. We are always on the slippery slope; it is not necessarily a bad slippery slope—it may slope in the right direction. The slippery slope argument has probably been used against almost every measure for some 200 years. It is often a favourable slope, as the history of the Reform Bills in this House well shows. In any case, the view that we should not do the right thing today because somebody else may do the wrong thing tomorrow is surely not a compelling argument.

Then there is the argument that committing suicide, or helping somebody to do so, is wrong because of the sanctity of life. Since 1961, however, suicide has not been illegal—though assisting suicide is, of course. If the terminally ill person is incapable of doing what he wants because of the illness, however, different considerations should surely apply. The sanctity of life is a difficult concept. It is evidently not known or followed by Messrs Bush and Blair, who are killing thousands of innocent civilians in Iraq. According to President Bush, it is not even known to God, since God told him to launch the invasion.

The idea that it is God's will that an old and weak person should spend a month or so dying in agony and dissolution, to the anguish and distress of his family, rather than being allowed to die with dignity a few weeks earlier as the result of an assisted suicide seems extraordinary to me. The most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury and the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford put that argument separately in the papers on Sunday—the right reverend Prelate put it again today—and it seems explicit in both articles. I quote the article of the right reverend Prelate:

"a person in extreme distress as a result of a debilitating illness is in a very different situation. But does their life not still have value? Do we not want to say to them: you are still of worth, we still want you with us, we don't want to empty our lives of your presence?".

If I were in a state of terminal illness and extreme agony and somebody came along and said that to me, I hope that I would convey my displeasure—I probably would not be well enough to hit him—and make him leave that room pretty soon. It seems to me to be well beyond the reach of any form of reality, although, as the right reverend Prelate said, it may still be rational.

We know that doctors, hospitals and nurses allow terminally ill people to refuse life-preserving treatment or drugs, a practice that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury supports. The fact that that is permissible but that doctors are not allowed to administer a drug or medicine that will kill patients quicker and more mercifully is equally extraordinary and reminds one irresistibly of the famous words of Arthur Hugh Clough:

"Thou shalt not kill; but needst not strive,

Officiously to keep alive".

I appreciate, of course, that some doctors have strong views and would not want to participate in any such process. They should obviously be allowed not to do so. Other doctors would do the job, and their feelings should be respected.

The arguments against the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, do not stand up. I strongly support it.