Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill: Select Committee Report

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:32 pm on 10th October 2005.

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Photo of The Bishop of London The Bishop of London Bishop 8:32 pm, 10th October 2005

My Lords, listening to that speech and so many of the speeches in your Lordships' House this evening, I do not think that anyone could claim a monopoly on compassion on either side of the question. I hope that your Lordships are aware that the opposition to these proposals is based on compassion as well. As a priest and former hospital chaplain, like many in this House I have attended a large number of people in their final days and hours. I have often found myself praying with them that their suffering should come to an end.

We have had the case about palliative care rehearsed many times this evening. I do not intend to go into that again. The words of the Chief Rabbi ring in my ears. I remember that he emerged from a debate and said to me, "Very soon, all the main points had been made. But, alas, not everybody had made them". At this stage of the night, a little more brevity is probably required, following the good example of the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes.

It is simply the case that we ought to ask with great urgency—people on both sides of the argument have agreed with this—why the state of the art palliative care available at some of the leading centres like Sheffield, Newcastle and Cardiff is not available to patients dying in other parts of the country. That is surely something on which we can all unite.

It is a pity that members of the committee—I understand the pressures of time—were not able to go together formally to visit a hospice, in addition to the visits to Oregon, Holland and Switzerland that have been generally described. Hospices, in my experience, are places where a lot of living is done in a very short time, in a way that often has a profound and creative effect on those facing death. That is true even for visitors and—especially so, in my experience—for those who are left behind after a death.

As has been pointed out in this debate again and again, however, there are other forms of distress. I found Professor Blackburn's evidence, which has not yet been mentioned, in response to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Turnberg, particularly telling. It is true, as we all know, that one of the most common things that you hear people say as they face death is that they fear that they are being a burden. Professor Blackburn echoed that in his evidence. He said:

"I am duly afraid of being a burden to other people in various ways. My pride would rebel against it and I would regard the narrative of my life as having gone much worse if it ended in these terrible ways".

People who are dying commonly feel that they are in the way, and it is for precisely that reason that I believe it is helpful that assisted suicide is, at present, not an option. As a life draws to its close, it is hard to be confident about one's motivation and feelings. It may be that a breakthrough to a new reality of human solidarity, to a new depth of experience, of giving and receiving and loving, is part of the education of dying. It is often hard for individuals to foresee that this may be the case. In fact, though, it is the daily experience of those in hospice care.

There are suggestions in the evidence presented to the Select Committee—we have heard much of it this evening—that the debate is really between people in thrall to religious dogma and those who are free to take an objective, human-centred view of the situation. It is, of course, true that the appeal that your Lordships received shows a remarkable identity of views between the followers of the various faith communities and traditions of wisdom represented in these islands. My right reverend brother the Bishop of Southwark signed that appeal; so did the Chief Rabbi, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff, the director of the Evangelical Alliance, the head of the Orthodox Church and the high representatives of the Muslim, Sikh, Hindu and Buddhist faiths. In the light of that, we can probably say that the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, could have a great career in interfaith relations ahead of him. I can imagine nothing else that would have brought people together in such a way.

My friend the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, as we have heard, has also written about the question in a similar vein. He has asked me to say that he would have been here, but a long-standing official visit overseas has prevented him from participating in person in this debate.

The concurrence of those different voices is astonishing, but I emphasise that the appeal made to the House is not on the basis of any truth that is inaccessible to all those of good will, whether they are religious believers or not. I find there is great strength at times of distress and confusion in the simple teaching that the Almighty has,

"fixed his canon 'gainst self-slaughter", but the appeal that you have received to reject the continuing and renewed efforts to legalise assisted dying and euthanasia does not rely on revelation.

The truth of the matter is that the debate on the proposals is difficult and complex, because there are radically different understandings of the realities of human life. Everyone would agree that it is right to struggle for independence as a person, although some people, like those with mental handicaps, are dependent to a high degree without making their life worthless to themselves or to the social networks of which they are a part. What a human life means is not exclusively the affair of any one individual. Independence or autonomy is an important stage on the way to recognising the interdependence in which we come to see profoundly that "I need you in order to be fully myself". As the noble Lord, Lord Maginnis, said, we were not born autonomous:

"We brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out".

Being realistic about human life means living in the light of that fact in the period between birth and death.

We have a right to expect that society will offer care to the dying, but it would be a tragedy if granting new possibilities to a few people contributed to eroding society's recognition of the worth of human life, even when it is subjected to profound disability or impairment. It would be a tragedy indeed if changing the law increased the pressure on many people who recognise their vulnerability to consider suicide.