Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:09 pm on 10th October 2005.

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Photo of Lord Carey of Clifton Lord Carey of Clifton Crossbench 8:09 pm, 10th October 2005

My Lords, debates in your Lordships' House are usually important, but that on the report of the Select Committee and its implications must surely rank as among the most crucial, as far as the most vulnerable and helpless people are concerned. In contributing to the debate, I wish to dissociate myself from the view that those of us who disagree with the thrust of the intentions of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, have a higher view of human dignity than those who present the case for assisted suicides and voluntary euthanasia. I salute the noble Lord's tenacity and recognise his concern for individuals who wish to terminate their life at a time of their own choosing. Neither side can claim to have a complete monopoly of the moral high ground. We may disagree strongly about the issues before us, but we are united in wanting the very best for such individuals and for all those who approach the end of their life in pain, distress and fear. I felt the tug of the noble Lord's argument over several months and found the debate helpful in enlarging my understanding through some excellent speeches. The noble Lord, Lord Puttnam, was very moving, and the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, presented a very persuasive argument.

I want to take up one short although complicated issue opened up by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Oxford and the noble Lord, Lord Carlile. It is sometimes alleged that people who are opposed to euthanasia as in this kind of debate are religious zealots, with the implication that people without religious convictions—the so-called majority—are not opposed to it. That is a false division. Allow me to focus on just one issue—autonomy—which has been taken up again and again. We all see it as important. You do not need religious convictions to acknowledge that legalising such acts would be a mistake.

It is clear from the Select Committee's excellent report that those who argue for euthanasia use as their main argument the concept of personal autonomy, but, as we have seen, autonomy is a weasel word. Autonomy means making up your own rules, and in a civilised society that is not possible. Who is completely free of duties to others, and where do we draw the line where life's decisions are only ours to take? Behaviour in a civilised society is necessarily modified to take account of the interests of others, so principled autonomy should replace the individualistic version of personal autonomy. In the application of the principle of autonomy at the end of life, the choice of the right to die inevitably affects others—especially medical staff who act on your choice and those who are left behind.

It may surprise some to know that Christians support principled autonomy. The Christian emphasis is on duties rather than rights—on personal responsibility rather than personal autonomy. One witness to the Select Committee aptly spoke of,

"respecting the autonomy of the individual as self-government rather than self-determination".

But it is not only Christians who believe that they cannot expect to have total control over their life. What they can and must have control over is themselves. If we succeed in doing that—how many of us attempt it, and how many of us do it—life will be better for us and those around us. The inevitability of death has to be accepted, but the manner in which I accept it—not whether I can control its time, place and method—determines whether I die well.

I want to intervene in my own argument to speak gently to the noble Viscount, Lord Craigavon, who in his otherwise excellent speech charged the right reverend Prelates the Bishop of St Albans and the Bishop of Oxford with perhaps imposing their view on the rest. If he reads their speeches, he will see that they argue that they want judgment to be made on the rational argument, not on a particular religious point of view. Maybe he is in danger of imposing his view. All of us together have to find a way through the issue.

Christians and those of many other faiths believe that this life is not the sum total of reality and that they are answerable to God for the way in which they live, die and help others who are dying—not by killing them, but by easing their pain and other suffering. They believe that human life is a gift from God and that we have no right to take it. You may say that most people in Britain today are not practising Christians, so why should Christian values be imposed on others? I suggest that there are many—like my parents when I was growing up—who may not go to church or have a clearly defined Christian faith and structure, but the culture from which they draw their values is essentially a Judaeo-Christian one with an emphasis on compassion, forgiveness and the sanctity of human life. Such values transcend narrow denominational boundaries. They know too that the choice to die cannot be regarded as purely personal and private. It affects other people. To ask a doctor to help to draw your life to an end is to draw that person into your choice in a way that cannot be regarded as morally neutral. It will affect the doctor-patient relationship in a fundamental way.

Furthermore, even if people do not share the Christian view that euthanasia is morally wrong, many believe that it is misguided; I judge that from the letters that I have received. In that respect, Christian values are at one with good sense and our sense of abiding human values. There are sound secular as well as religious reasons not to go down this road, and I say that with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Joffe. People who argue against changing the law do not do so because they are religious fanatics. Some of them—a substantial number—have religious convictions that tell them that medicalised killing is wrong, but many more can see important civil reasons why society as a whole, especially its more vulnerable members, would be threatened if the law were changed.