Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:24 pm on 10th October 2005.

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Photo of Earl Ferrers Earl Ferrers Conservative 6:24 pm, 10th October 2005

My Lords, this is a sensitive subject that combines compassion and understanding with the basics of life and how to deal with death. You cannot get more complex and sensitive than that. If one is not a professional or a cleric, one walks on this bed of nails with care although, as the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, said, one does not have to be a professional or a cleric to hold views on the subject. It is not surprising that views are fairly diverse.

I wish to raise four points, but before I do I shall refer to two speeches. The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, made a most astonishing speech that was clear and full of knowledge and understanding. Then she referred to a person who had wanted to be assisted to die, but did not have that assistance, and was alive 10 years later. If that had happened, one wonders where the rectitude and the rightness and wrongness would have been. It was a remarkable speech. The other speech, among many enormously impressive speeches, was made by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans who put a complicated situation clearly and asked since when personal choice has been the highest moral value. I had never thought of it like that, but most religions would say that personal choice is not the highest moral value because whatever one does one has to operate and co-operate with other people.

The four points that I wish to make are stark and simple. They are unencumbered by any natural explanation. The first is the remark made by the late Lord Soper, who used to come to this House dressed in his black cassock. I can see him sitting just behind where the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, is sitting. We used to sit on the other side of the House because we were in government in those days—it feels like about a hundred years ago. I remember Lord Soper speaking without a note, as he always did, in a most beautiful voice. He said that in his experience the closer people come to death, the more they want to hang on to life. Those who are in favour of the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, may say that that may be so but the Bill refers only to those who are about to die and are suffering terrible pain so it expedites an inevitable process. But one wonders whether we are entitled to expedite an inevitable process. What is an inevitable process? Death is an inevitable process and the only uninevitable things about it are how and when. Therefore I question whether we are right to expedite it.

Secondly, most doctors want to be seen as the savers of life, not the extinguishers of it. Savers of life would not like to be thought of by some as possible extinguishers of it. When an old lady sees her doctor, whom she trusts, will she feel that maybe this time he has come to extinguish her? Thirdly, the old lady—of course, this refers just as much to an old gentleman, a position some of us are rapidly approaching—may not wish to die, but may feel that she is being a burden on her children and that she ought to ask to be removed. Those would be intolerable pressures. My fourth point is closely connected. The old lady may think that her children probably wish her to be assisted to die in order to relieve them and her of the desperate misery that they see her going through. She may feel that she ought to do it for her children's sake.

I feel that the pressure on the elderly and the infirm to do that which they do not want to do because they feel that they ought to do it would be immense. These matters are never black and white but are varying shades of grey. No one person will slot into any one category. That is the danger of legislation: as soon as it categorises people there are arguments as to whether a person falls into a category or not. The wonders of modern science and modern approaches enable us to do remarkable things but I cannot believe that convenience dying is ethically, morally or religiously correct.