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Second Reading

Part of Assisted Dying Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 11:29 am on 18th July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Blair of Boughton Lord Blair of Boughton Crossbench 11:29 am, 18th July 2014

My Lords, I declare the interest that I was a member of the commission of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, on assisted dying. I agreed with its findings and I support the Bill.

I will talk in my short time about the commission. First, this was a comprehensive inquiry, which took evidence for 18 months. It ended with a comprehensive report, which is over 300 pages long. It is therefore a little unnecessary to suggest that we need another royal commission. Secondly, it is worth remembering that, while not being the complete answer to the principle objected to by some, every proposal in the Bill is voluntary. It is voluntary for those who wish to die; it is voluntary for those who wish to assist them, whether or not they are healthcare professionals. Thirdly, in the visits that the commission paid to Oregon, which is the only equivalent jurisdiction with an equivalent law, we found evidence neither of a slippery slope down to involuntary euthanasia nor of the elderly being pressured. Fourthly, the Bill is particularly well circumscribed. It does not include anything to do with those without mental capacity to make such a decision, nor does it include those who are disabled, however fundamentally, but who are not dying. One of our commissioners, who signed up to the report, was Dr Stephen Duckworth, himself a disabled campaigner and a person suffering from serious disability. Fifthly, that means that the Bill is aimed at the very small number of people who are dying, who are unable to kill themselves and whose pain cannot be treated.

One of the people who came to give evidence to the commission was Dr Ann McPherson, an Oxford GP and founder of Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying. She died of cervical cancer before the report was published. I would, with a heavy heart, recommend that noble Lords Google or look at her daughter Dr Tess McPherson’s account of her mother’s death; it is in the British Medical Journal. Ann had access from the inside of the profession to the best that medicine could provide to ease her passing. It could not. The account of her death is harrowing, shocking and—bluntly and sadly—quite disgusting. It is the compassionate aim of the Bill to prevent others from dying so badly.

Others are better qualified to speak about those kinds of points. I want to talk about one part of my own expertise. For as long as the law remains unchanged, as I said in a debate last December, while prosecutors may have guidance that makes the prosecution of assisted suicide unlikely, each such death means a police investigation. The house will be a crime scene: tents, officers in forensic clothing, photography and the seizure of computers, last letters, presents and bank statements. This is a homicide scene and it is immensely distressing for those left behind. The funeral will be delayed for a post-mortem. Relatives will be faced with months of anxiety, waiting for a prosecutorial decision. It is also an extremely unpleasant task for the police and an entirely unnecessary one.

Thelma Stone is a friend of a friend. She recently wrote to me about the death of her husband Alan, who was terminally ill with motor neurone disease and took his own life. Your Lordships may think that she puts this rather mildly:

“One feels a certain loneliness on top of the bereavement when one is treated as a potential criminal at such a painful time”.

At the end of “King Lear”, Kent says of the dying king:

“O, let him pass! He hates him

That would upon the rack of this tough worldStretch him out longer”.

It is not just the dying but their relatives and friends who need to be released with compassion and safeguards from the rack of these kinds of awful deaths.