Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:12 pm on 10th October 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Ackner Lord Ackner Crossbench 6:12 pm, 10th October 2005

My Lords, I join in the congratulations so elegantly expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury.

I have a clear recollection of the Suicide Bill, because it occurred in 1961, which was the year in which I got silk from Lord Kilmuir. The Bill seemed to be very soundly based. I decided I would look back at the Second Reading debate to see whether there was wisdom to be found there; and I think there is. On 2 March 1961, at col. 261 of the Official Report, Lord Silkin said that, as a result of what was being suggested, society would no longer regard it as its business to preserve life. That seems to indicate that society was rejecting the sanctity of human life, because if such sanctity were maintained, it would be impossible to legislate to make suicide no longer a criminal offence. The Bishop of Carlisle was of the view that it was contrary to law to take one's own life, and he founded that upon the sanctity of human life.

In the same debate, Lady Wootton of Abinger said:

"The early Christians were, I think, very much disposed to suicide; and perhaps they were so disposed through excessive rationality. They assumed that by an early departure from this life they could escape not only its miseries, but also its temptations, and that they would thus equip themselves with a clean passport to the blessed state of the next world. It was, I think, because of this tendency to favour suicide that St. Augustine felt himself called upon to discourage the practice".—[Hansard, 2/3/61; cols. 266-67.]

Lord Denning, not then Master of the Rolls, said that suicide had been a crime for nearly 1,000 years:

"The reason for that law was stated by Blackstone to be founded, as it was, on our religion. The law of England, he said, wisely and religiously decreed that no man had power to destroy life except by commission by God, the author of it".

That was clearly a religious backing to the foundation of suicide being a crime. He went on to say:

"But what about . . . Clause 2 of the Bill, aiding and abetting suicide? If we do away with suicide as a crime, logically we do away with any aiding and abetting, because you cannot aid and abet a crime when it is no longer a crime. Indeed, it is illogical to have this clause in here, but it may be needed".—[Hansard, 2/3/61; cols. 262-5.]

However, he pointed out that suicide had never been a crime in Scotland, and said that Scotland had not apparently found it necessary to have any aiding and abetting provision.

Several years before the Bill was passed, Professor Glanville Williams, at whose feet I tried to learn, had written a book entitled The Sanctity of Life and the Criminal Law, in which he said:

"The religious objection is principally the familiar one that killing falls under the ban of the Sixth Commandment. This theocratic morality is, however, no more successful in the present application than in those previously considered. The true translation of the Sixth Commandment is not 'Thou shalt not kill', but 'Thou shalt do no murder', as the Book of Common Prayer has it; and it is only by a stretch of words that a killing with the patient's consent, to relieve him of inexpressible suffering, can morally be described as murder".

Of course there must be safeguards, and these, I submit, have been properly and fully considered by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe.

In conclusion, I ask your Lordships' forgiveness if I leave soon after completing this speech. The lift in my block of flats is out of order, and I have gone down six flights of stairs to get here. It is easier getting down the stairs because, if you do it backwards, the prospect of doing any real injury is remote. Going upstairs, though, requires some assistance, and I have got someone to stand by to assist me, provided that I am not too late. I am much obliged.