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Second Reading

Part of Assisted Dying Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 11:06 am on 18th July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Avebury Lord Avebury Liberal Democrat 11:06 am, 18th July 2014

As a Buddhist, I recognise that this Bill contravenes fundamental Buddhist beliefs in the inviolability of human life, but there is also the Buddhist principle of compassion, which I think applies in the extreme circumstances of distressing terminal illness. That, it seems to me, weighs heavily in consideration of this Bill and is partly what has persuaded me to support it. I believe that the same is true of many other people of strong religious faith, both Buddhists and Christians. They believe, as I do, that helping people who are suffering from distressing terminal illnesses outweighs the principle of inviolability of human life.

We also have in front of us, as has been mentioned, the DPP’s current guidelines on cases of “encouraging or assisting suicide”, which maintain that in certain circumstances a person should not be prosecuted for helping someone to die. We have the Supreme Court’s ruling, which has been referred to by several noble Lords, that the Bill should be given a Second Reading so that the issues it raises can be properly and thoroughly discussed, as was recommended by the Select Committee on the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, as long ago as March 2006. I hope that the opponents of assisted dying will respect the Supreme Court’s clear message that safeguards and checks at the time of a person’s decision to end their life are better than our present system, under which any inquiry happens only after a person’s death.

There is also the opinion of a large number of people in this country—80% according to one poll—reflected by the Times, the Guardian, the Observer and the Evening Standard, that Parliament cannot duck responsibility for considering the plight of terminally ill patients whose suffering cannot be relieved by palliative care in the final weeks of their lives. I recognise that palliative care is effective in the large majority of cases of terminally ill patients, but it is not effective in all. There are still many for whom the final weeks are ones of severe pain or distress, and that is why many patients look towards the end of their lives with dread.

Like many of your Lordships, I have had letters from patients who are in constant, severe pain which treatment cannot remedy. It is a great source of worry to them that, in the last six months of their lives, they may be forced to live in terrible pain and discomfort. Others write to me about relatives who died recently from inoperable brain tumours, for example, but not before they had been forced to suffer several weeks of intense physical and existential pain before finally achieving unconsciousness. There is plenty of evidence to show that modern drugs and care are not always able to control or alleviate pain at the end of life.

I declare an interest. In June 2011, I was diagnosed with myelofibrosis, a rare form of blood cancer, which can be cured in fit patients only by stem cell transplants. For patients older than 70 with poor medical histories, stem cell transplants are not recommended. The prognosis is that either the bone marrow turns to fibre and blood cells are manufactured in the spleen which becomes enlarged, or, in some cases, MF can transform to acute myeloid leukaemia, a serious blood and bone marrow cancer, which progresses quickly. These are unattractive prospects to look forward to in the last weeks of my life. I would expect that, in agreeing to this Second Reading, your Lordships would give the tens of thousands of people diagnosed with conditions that may similarly lead to weeks of torture before they die the means of escape from that unnecessary fate.