Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:29 pm on 10th October 2005.

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Photo of Baroness Warnock Baroness Warnock Crossbench 6:29 pm, 10th October 2005

My Lords, it has become abundantly clear from all that has been written and spoken on the subject of today's debate that there are two different kinds of argument against what the Bill would permit. The first is absolutist and the second is consequentialist. We have not heard very much about the absolute argument this afternoon. I shall say very little about the consequentialist arguments. They focus mainly on the slippery slope, at the bottom of which lies non-voluntary euthanasia, or they concentrate on the supposed fact, which I by no means accept, that the passage of the Bill would mean an erosion of trust between doctor and patient. These are empirical arguments, based on what is thought likely to happen. As such of course they ought to be based as far as possible on evidence.

I want to concentrate instead on the absolutist argument that it is morally wrong to allow assisted death for those who seriously request it because it would violate the principle of the sanctity of human life. That issue has already been mentioned and came out very well in the quotations that we were referred to by my noble and learned friend Lord Ackner. Those whose objection to the Bill is based on this principle have no need to invoke the consequentialist arguments against it, although they often do—and although it may well be true that, as the right reverent Prelate the Bishop of Oxford said, many in the Church actually rely more on the empirical than on the absolutist arguments.

It is clear that most people—I would say everyone in your Lordships' House—believe that human life is a value that has enormously high priority among all the things to which we attach value, and that one must be extremely cautious in giving other values priority over it. But those who literally believe in life's sanctity, argue, as the Church of England and the Roman Catholic bishops and the Chief Rabbi did in their written submissions to the Select Committee, that this sanctity derives from the fact that:

"God himself has given to humankind the gift of life".

Or, in the more explicit words of the Chief Rabbi, that,

"life is a precious gift from God . . . whose value is absolute and not relative to factors such as age and health".

That was the fundamental basis on which those men of God founded their evidence to the committee.

I want to suggest to your Lordships that, in matters of legislation especially, it is crucially important to distinguish moral arguments from religious or theological arguments. That is true despite the undeniable fact, which I certainly would not deny, that our morality has been hugely influenced by the Judaeo-Christian tradition. But the law cannot be based on the literal interpretation of religious beliefs of some, but not all, Members of Parliament, or of some, but not all, members of society. There are many people, even many people who, like me, are church-goers, who cannot take literally the proposition that being God's gift confers on human life a special sanctity regardless of its quality and regardless of whether the person living it wishes to preserve it. Life is not an abstract thing; it is not a separable non-concrete entity. A human life is always being lived by somebody. Someone in the extremity of suffering, knowing that his life is in any case drawing to a close, and begging to be allowed to die, will not be comforted by the thought that another person, not he, places the value of his life above every other conceivable value. And indeed, he may wish, as has been pointed out, to point out that we do not always apparently regard human life as having to be preserved at all costs. Not everyone, as the noble Lord, Lord Gilmour, suggested, who is opposed to this Bill has refused to sanction the deliberate sacrifice of human life to other values in time of war, for example. I would argue that in certain limited cases, as outlined in the Bill, we should forget the theological arguments defining life itself as possessing an intrinsic sanctity. I turn instead to that separate moral argument; namely, the argument from compassion.

Compassion will of course lead us to try to make any human being's life when it is coming to its end as tolerable as possible. But by any moral standard is it good to prolong that life against his express wishes? Is it better by any moral standard to keep him alive if in some extreme case he is reduced by our efforts to actual unconsciousness, rather than to allow him to decide that now is the time to go? I cannot myself regard this as a rational or defensible morality, upon which the law must in my opinion be based.


Tim Roberts
Posted on 7 May 2006 8:36 pm (Report this annotation)

What makes the speaker think that non-voluntary euthanasia is at the bottom of the slope? It would just be a stage on the way down - one, incidentally, that the Dutch have already reached. Further down would be 'quality of life' tests - already feared by the disabled...