My Lords, I join those who have acknowledged the work done by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, and his Select Committee and thank them. Understandably the committee has considered the issue without coming to a conclusion but assists us by carefully defining the terms in which we might address the matter.
Unlike some, I have no great regard for euphemisms and believe that it is important to acknowledge that both "assisted suicide" and "euthanasia" are "killing". It cannot be otherwise in so far as both bring lives to a premature end. The Voluntary Euthanasia Society has claimed that a vast majority favour a change in the law. I firmly doubt that. It may be the fashionable thing to say when the question is put in terms of "unbearable pain" or "loss of dignity" associated with incontinence, but those can be superficial and misleading criteria. I have never found euthanasia to be a subject that arises in casual conversation. It is not a matter to which the "vast majority" has ever turned its collective mind. So, in terms of the vast majority, we should be exceedingly cautious.
Perhaps I may deal briefly with the so-called loss of dignity. As one who has been in the presence of death—lingering death, sudden death and, I regret, violent death—I can say that there is inevitably and invariably incontinence. I do not know why the Voluntary Euthanasia Society attempts to persuade us that the indignity of incontinence is a likely motivation for a patient to want to be killed off. Incontinence is a condition often associated with comparatively healthy old age. What would the Voluntary Euthanasia Society propose in that circumstance? None of us came into this world or spent our initial years in a particularly dignified fashion, if that is the criterion by which we make a judgment. So why should we now exaggerate the relevance of that matter in the context of how we leave this world?
I have the greatest admiration for nurses and doctors who work at the coalface and particularly for those who provide palliative care—I shall return to that issue later. Where I have grave reservations is in the area where government would, as we have seen recently, deny women suffering from breast cancer access to a drug that might extend their lives and improve their quality of life because of the cost.
And what does one say about a society that over the past few years has allowed our pension system to become massively underfunded to the tune of billions of pounds? Will that not precipitate even greater loss of dignity in old age than anything that may derive from terminal illness?
I raise those examples because I firmly believe that, should we ever legalise so-called "mercy" killing—I do not see it as such—the pressures on the sick, the elderly and the infirm would obviously be to do with pounds, shillings and pence. I shall not rehearse what I have previously said in your Lordships' House about "socially convenient" abortion, but therein lies an obvious parallel. There, we really should think about what we once legislated for and what we have now.
To those who will cite the legal safeguards that will exist, I must say that most people would be happier if life and death issues were left to those who are bound by the Hippocratic principles that have underpinned people's faith in the medical profession for hundreds of years. The law is too much of a movable feast. We saw that when, for example, Commander Paddick decided that in his area of responsibility some drugs offences would no longer be brought before the courts. Could we have similar varied interpretations in cases of so-called mercy killing? Would the huge cost factor of court appeals militate against litigants and limit recourse to the law? In case anyone suggests that I have a religious prejudice that motivates me to speak today, let me reassure him—I have. It is the same motivation that made me vote against capital punishment in another place—because I was not in a position where I could ever "cast the first stone".
Human rights, democracy, equality and equal opportunity can all be enshrined in legislation, but I was brought up to believe that, however sophisticated, intellectually able or educationally competent one may be, it is arrogant to seek to disturb the established keystones of civilisation. Parliament, particularly over the past 30 years, has substituted legislation for accepted common decency, compassion, respect for what is right and rejection of what is wrong, and I think we are worse off as a result. I therefore advocate—and I respectfully ask noble Lords to travel with me—that until we fully examine and put in place every palliative care resource that is available, we do not further consider this odious alternative.
Hospice provision is of course partly funded by government but it is the so-called vast majority that provides the voluntary funding that really sustains the system. That indicates to me that the vast majority wants to care for and comfort those who are dying—not to have this nation legalise so-called mercy killings.
Resources that would be required to sustain assisted dying—no one has sought to quantify that figure—should be directed exclusively towards palliative care provision. That is the pragmatic way and it is the morally right way.