Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:45 pm on 10th October 2005.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Baroness Wilkins Baroness Wilkins Labour 6:45 pm, 10th October 2005

My Lords, I spoke in opposition to the assisted dying Bill that the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, introduced in 2003, and after careful reading of the Select Committee's excellent report—I join other noble Lords in congratulating the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, and his committee on it—I remain fundamentally opposed to any change in the law on assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia.

I believe that to make that change would cross a threshold in the safety of our respect for the value of human life which could never be recrossed. We must not cross that boundary. As the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, who chaired the Select Committee on this subject in 1993-94, stated in his evidence:

"society's prohibition of intentional killing is the cornerstone of law and social relationships . . . It protects each of us impartially, embodying the belief that we are all equal".

My personal autonomy has to be outweighed by that greater claim of a just and equal society where no one is given cause to fear that their life has less value than others.

However many safeguards are put in place to ensure that an assisted dying Bill was used only for those for whom it was intended, it is impossible to create a safeguard against the wider, unintended consequences of changes in society's attitude to the value of life. Again to cite the report of the noble Lord, Lord Walton, who, by chance, is following me in this debate:

"the message which society sends to vulnerable and disadvantaged people should not, however obliquely, encourage them to seek death but should assure them of our care and support in life".

For me, one of the most striking elements of the Select Committee's report is the evidence of the very small number of people who would actually take advantage of any change in the law. It states:

"There was general agreement among our witnesses that the number of people who might be regarded as serious about ending their lives, who are not psychiatrically ill and who are unlikely to be deflected from their purpose is very small indeed".

Are we really to jettison that fundamental safeguard that our lives have value—the bulwark that killing is a crime—to satisfy the personal autonomy of a small, albeit tragic, group of people? I am convinced that satisfying that small group of people would mean that thousands live in fear. As the report states:

"There is a concern that . . . others will find themselves pressured in one way or another into taking a course of action which they would not have sought if the law had not allowed it".

The report goes on to discuss those "hidden pressures", which many noble Lords have cited today on elderly people who begin to feel themselves to be a burden on their families and whose care is eating into their children's inheritance and who may begin to feel that they should tidy themselves up and dispose of themselves. I have had many conversations with my disabled friends, who genuinely fear going into hospital if they have an acute period of illness and need intensive medical care, and that they will meet the prejudice of doctors who are imbued with society's prejudice that their lives are not equal to others and that it would be better to be dead than to be disabled.

As the law stands, it provides protection for such people. It proclaims to all of us that our lives have value. The current law protects the vulnerable and we remove it at our peril.