Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 10:51 am on 12th May 2006.

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Photo of Lord St John of Fawsley Lord St John of Fawsley Conservative 10:51 am, 12th May 2006

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, on introducing the Bill. It requires great courage to introduce a Bill of this kind, and he has shown it. If you do not have courage in politics, there is no assurance of achieving anything. I also congratulate him on his record on human rights and the work he has done in that area. If the noble Lord has received some abusive letters, it is a bore but it is a part of the small change of public life. You do not have to read a letter very far before you find that it is abusive—normally it starts before the "dear"—so throw it in the wastepaper basket and forget about it.

The noble Lord, Lord Joffe, has achieved something very important: he has shown the relevance of this House to our social and moral issues. This House is the forum where these great issues can be intelligently and temperately discussed. We have no other institution where this can happen. It is one of the great glories of this House that this should happen here, where there is so much expertise, knowledge, experience and real concern. I am delighted that that is so.

There is tremendous interest in this topic simply because the life of a great society depends on a common possession of moral principles. If those moral principles disappear, the society disappears with them. People are so concerned about this issue because, at a time of great moral change and uncertainty, one of the fundamental pillars of our society is being shaken. And now I leave issues of moral principle to the Bishops. I find it difficult to do so, but we all have to make sacrifices.

The first major practical point I wish to make concerns abuse. The deadly sin of our time is not sexual promiscuity, which the Church goes on about the whole time—too much, in my opinion—and provides a mirror image of the ills of society; the evil of our time is greed, which exists throughout society and at every level. The trouble is that the Bill would open the way to abuse by the greedy and the acquisitive and bring pressure on those who are at their most vulnerable.

My second point is that the end of life, the last period of life, is not a wasteland necessarily. It can be a wonderful period of renewal, reconciliation and acceptance. I have never spoken about this personal experience in public, but I do so now because I feel the issue before us is so important. My dear mother died in a convent here in London. I was summoned from a Shadow Cabinet meeting to her bedside. She said to me, "I do not want to die, but I feel that I am a burden to you". I said, "Dearest, you could never be a burden; you are an inspiration to me". I said, "If you do not want to die, let us say out loud the Lord's Prayer, the Hail Mary and the Prayer of the Trinity"—because vocal prayer is sometimes so powerful. "Our prayer is that, if it is the will of God, you will rise through this crisis". We prayed and she fell into a deep sleep—and from that moment the fear of death lifted. As it lifted from her, I felt what it was like. It was like being up against a brick wall, but you could not get over the wall and you could not move backwards from it. It was one of the most dreadful experiences I have ever had.

A year later she died. The marvellous reverend mother in charge, Mother Serrano, said to her, "Offer up everything you feel with the Lord". She said "Yes", bowed her head and died. Deo gratias for all those who substituted for a snuffing-out tender, loving, practical care and reached such a splendid result.