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Second Reading

Part of Assisted Dying Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 10:27 am on 18th July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Lester of Herne Hill Lord Lester of Herne Hill Liberal Democrat 10:27 am, 18th July 2014

My Lords, the question raised by the Bill is whether an exception should be made to the existing criminal law for doctor-assisted suicide of the terminally ill, within the narrow limits and stringent conditions prescribed by the Bill. We should oppose the recent suggestion to withdraw the Bill in favour of a royal commission, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said. We have the benefit of the work of the Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics and the Lords Committee on the Bill proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, and the evidence that they gathered. The Supreme Court has decided that Parliament should have the opportunity to decide whether Section 2 should be amended. The time is overripe for both Houses of Parliament to take that opportunity.

I was amicus curiae in the Bland case about whether it was criminal homicide to withdraw artificial feeding from a victim of the Hillsborough tragedy, Tony Bland. He was in persistent vegetative state and would never recover consciousness. His family and the healthcare team believed that it was in his best interests to end what remained of his life and the Law Lords agreed. Like all of us, the Law Lords believed in the sanctity of human life; their judgments were based on the principle of personal autonomy—that patients of sound mind have the right to choose whether to accept medical treatment. Tony Bland could not make that choice. They decided that the common law permitted his life support machine to be switched off without risk of criminal homicide.

What then of MND victims such as Chris Woodhead or my late client Annie Lindsell? MND is a degenerative neurological condition with no known cause or cure. It kills the nerves controlling movement so that sufferers, while retaining total brain function and being able to feel pain, find themselves completely trapped inside a completely paralysed body.

Annie Lindsell, along with other MND patients, did not want to choke to death on her own mucus when she became unable to swallow. She did not want to have to starve herself to death or endure invasive surgery, nor did she want to live in a doped haze with palliative care. When the quality of her life became unbearable to her, as she began to be unable to swallow, and was at imminent risk of suffering severe distress, involving choking, Annie and her doctor wanted to be confident that her doctor would be able lawfully to relieve her severe distress, even though the probable consequence was to shorten her life. They needed to know that, if her doctor agreed, she would be treated with drugs at that stage so that she could die with dignity, fully aware of her circumstances. That is also Chris Woodhead’s wish, expressed so movingly in this week’s Sunday Times. He does not wish to have to starve himself to death.

Patients have the right to life. They also have the right to personal autonomy and dignity. They and their doctors need to know what exception there is to the law of homicide, enabling a doctor, acting in accordance with the patient’s wishes and the doctor’s conscience and judgment as to the appropriate medical treatment, to administer that treatment, even though it will end the patient’s life. Unless the criminal law and good medical practice are clear, conscientious doctors, seeking to act in the best interests of their terminally ill patients, and the terminally ill patients themselves, are left in a state of uncertainty and anxiety.

This very narrowly drawn Bill will give them the certainty that they deserve. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said, it is not a slippery slope if Parliament draws the line. The Bill does not threaten the lives of vulnerable people, including the disabled. I hope very much that the House will not only allow it to proceed but approve it for the other place.