Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:09 pm on 10th October 2005.

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Photo of Lord Puttnam Lord Puttnam Labour 7:09 pm, 10th October 2005

My Lords, a couple of weeks ago a close friend of mine, a former Member of your Lordships' House, died surrounded by his large family in precisely the way that every one of us, given the choice, would wish to breathe our last. Sadly, that is far from being the common experience.

I think that this is the first time that I have tested the patience of the House on a subject on which I can offer no professional background whatsoever. We have been fortunate to hear from a great number of experts, those whose background as doctors and care workers have made them remarkably well versed in this most difficult of areas. The voice that I have found missing has been that of the patient; the desperately, terminally sick human being whose principal concern is to minimise their suffering and end their lives with some semblance of dignity. That voice does exist, but for the most part it has been left to the artist to convey it. My purpose here today is to ensure that this most important voice at least gets a hearing.

Like many of your Lordships, I have a personal story to tell. The death of my mother last December, aged 93, was a travesty of natural justice. I cannot fault the excellent care she received, but the final three months of what had been an active and healthy life were simply grotesque. As she slipped away, week by week, the person that my sister and I visited rapidly ceased to have any resemblance to our mother. This once energetic woman was reduced to little more than a confused, skeletal "living cadaver".

Did your Lordships know that those approaching death very commonly experience acute nightmares? No, neither did I. The closest my mother and I came to a "conversation" in those final few weeks was her all-too-vivid descriptions of being abducted—"kidnapped", as she believed—by those who appeared only to wish her harm. Every scrap of dignity was stripped away as she was simply—kept alive.

I would not wish any Member of your Lordships' House to suffer as my mother did in her final weeks. The belief that under our present arrangements pain and suffering can be kept at bay is, in too many cases, simply not true. It is not, as the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, would encourage us to believe, a one in a million chance. Far from it.

A number of contemporary artists have taken a stab at depicting the personal experiences of people like my mother and, given my background, it would be odd were I not to draw your Lordships' attention to the cinema. It may be worth pointing out that artists, down the years, have tended to anticipate the future rather better than lawyers, doctors or even bishops. Like Alan Bennett, they are a voice well worth listening to.

Three films at least should be compulsory viewing for anyone wishing to share what I would best describe as an experiential viewpoint. "The Sea Inside" has rightly been highly praised, but I suggest that your Lordships might find even more illuminating the French-Canadian film, "The Barbarian Invasions", along with the magnificent Japanese production, "The Ballad of Nayarama". All of these films, in their different ways, take you on a difficult but thoroughly educative journey.

I have touched on my own experience but I should like to offer another testimony from, as it were, the "front line". Alan Rusbridger, the distinguished editor of the Guardian, wrote earlier this year about the death of his father. Here is a short extract from what I found to be a very moving account:

"My father was, so far as we could tell, quite often in agony. And my brother and I were placed in the awkward situation of begging, cajoling and—in the end—demanding that he be given ever higher doses of morphine.

Different members of the medical team appeared to have different views about what was an adequate, or even an appropriate dose. The 'night' team countermanded the 'day' team. The palliative care team didn't work at weekends!

I had a tense conversation with one Macmillan nurse to whom I had suggested raising the dose. 'I'm afraid we have ethical and legal difficulties with sedation' she said.

'I'm not asking you to sedate him', I replied. 'I'm asking you to do what he was promised—to be allowed to die without pain'.

My brother and I visited every day, spending hours by his bedside, But, as luck would have it, de-hydration finally took its course at a time when neither of us was there. So my dad died alone.

Why is withholding nourishment and treatment, as an old man withers away from de-hydration, more ethical then intervening to help him die at the time, and in the manner, of his choosing?"

Are we honestly to accept that this is simply "God's will"? Was it God's will that some 20,000 people died in Kashmir at the weekend? Not my God. My God will be weeping. Is it entirely beyond us to navigate our way towards something altogether better— not "either/or" but "and"—a choice that might perhaps, at the end of our lives, dignify the human experience?

The Earl of Northumberland is reported as saying:

"It becomes not a valiant man to die lying like a beast".

That was almost 1,000 years ago. He was right then and he would be equally right today. Surely the time has come finally, seriously and humanely to address the manner of our parting. I unreservedly support the need for this Bill or something remarkably like it.