Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill [HL]

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:02 am on 12th May 2006.

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Photo of Lord Ashley of Stoke Lord Ashley of Stoke Labour 11:02 am, 12th May 2006

My Lords, the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury mentioned vulnerable people. The effect of the Bill on disabled people has been mentioned in various debates; some opponents claim that the public cannot distinguish between disabled people and those who are terminally ill and that, consequently, disabled people will be at risk. The public often misunderstand disability, largely because they are not basically interested in it, but they surely cannot be so stupid as to believe that Britain's 11 million disabled people are terminally ill. I completely reject that argument.

The Disability Rights Commission says that it cannot support the Bill at this point in history. It suggests that a much higher priority is to legislate for the right to independent living and other matters. But these two things are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I have been working for some months on a major Bill on independent living for disabled people and hope to present it to the House shortly. The organisation that has been of enormous help to me on the Bill has been the Disability Rights Commission. So there is no point in saying that we must choose between one and the other.

The most reverend Primate also mentioned the will of God, slippery slopes and society at large. I believe that these are very convenient arguments which can be transferred to any legislation. The basic question is this: how would those who oppose the Bill respond to a husband, a wife, a son or a daughter who is agonisingly and terminally ill and says that he or she has had enough? That person has had all the love, affection and palliative care possible but still finds life unendurable and wants help to die. Would opponents of the Bill say, "Of course I love you and will do what I can to help but you may change your mind so I'm afraid the answer is no"? Would they say, "I would love to help and your personal autonomy is important, but it is only one small element in the complex equation of the broad interests of society. I am sorry that I can't help you, but the answer must be no"? Would they say, "I would do anything to help if I could, but if I help you to die, then I may encourage unscrupulous doctors to kill off disabled people like dogs. I couldn't do that, so the answer is no"? Or would they say, "Of course I want to help but please stick it out until God calls you. He knows what's best and is infallible. I'll pray for you, but I cannot say yes, and the answer is no"?

With their nearest and dearest begging for help, who is to give these excuses and refuse to help? To say yes to a loved one is very hard but to say no is impossible. It is quite wrong to patronise or ignore disabled people; it is even more so to patronise and ignore terminally ill people.

This admirable Bill, presented very ably by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, offers a way forward which is compassionate, sensible and pragmatic. It can relieve human suffering by people who are begging for release. I hope the House will support it.