Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:29 pm on 10th October 2005.

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Photo of Baroness Masham of Ilton Baroness Masham of Ilton Crossbench 7:29 pm, 10th October 2005

My Lords, this mammoth debate shows the interest that there is in this very complex matter. It is obvious that the committee, under the chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, worked very hard to produce this report.

Everyone should have the right to refuse life-prolonging treatment if they so wish, but I cannot support the belief that terminally ill people should have the right to medical assistance to die—pain relief, yes, but not killing. It would be impossible to ensure that any safeguards were not abused, and I agree that the law should not be changed to permit killing, whatever the motive.

As a disabled person with a long-term, permanent condition, and also having a husband who now has multiple, complicated illnesses, I rely on advice from specialist doctors. Above everything, I want to be able to trust them, in the hope that they will preserve life and not give up and kill us.

I am glad that the General Medical Council wrote to the committee to say that a change in the law to allow physician-assisted dying would have profound implications for the role and responsibilities of doctors and their relationship with patients. If the Bill has done anything useful, it has highlighted the need for good palliative care for all who need it.

Many people to whom I have spoken, or who have written to me, have said that it is sad that the BMA's decision appears to leave the medical profession in the position of washing its hands of the clinical responsibilities for preserving life. Naturally, it is understood that there will be cases where some medical support has been applied to prolong life where easing pain might have been more appropriate. The use of painkillers with the intention of easing suffering would be considered morally acceptable by all, even where this may have the unintentional effect of accelerating death. Is it not the action of giving treatment with the intention of accelerating death that is not acceptable to many people? Such a change in the law to permit euthanasia would be a step over a moral boundary irrevocably with long-term consequences which cannot be foreseen.

I shall quote Jane Campbell, who is a disability rights commissioner. Jane is severely disabled, but works hard. She says:

"The impetus behind calls for assisted dying is fear. People find severely disabled people so difficult they want to pity or tidy them away. They see facilitating death as an ultimate act of pity. No wonder people who fear death see euthanasia as a possible escape. Before considering assisting people to die, should society not assist them to live?"

I hope that all your Lordships have seen and read the open letter from the British faith communities expressing grave concern at continuing and renewed efforts to legislate for euthanasia. I thank all the faith leaders who have signed the letter and I associate myself with their concern that vulnerable people—the elderly, lonely, sick or distressed—would feel pressure, whether real or imagined, to request early death. The so-called right to die would inexorably become the duty to die. Economic pressures and convenience would potentially come to dominate decision-making.

I was reminded the other day that I had once officially opened a GP surgery/health centre in South Yorkshire and that Dr Shipman had worked there. The way in which he killed innocent, trusting patients and got away with it for so long shows the power that doctors have. If we legislate, will we not be opening the door to all sorts of dangerous people instead of protecting the vulnerable?