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Second Reading

Part of Assisted Dying Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 12:44 pm on 18th July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Tombs Lord Tombs Crossbench 12:44 pm, 18th July 2014

My Lords, today’s debate has already shown how complicated is the proposal for mercy killing—for that is what we are discussing. The desire to relieve seemingly unbearable suffering is understandable and even praiseworthy, but the means chosen may involve even more suffering for others, whose vulnerability may not be immediately apparent.

We rightly seek in our society to protect life, and so murder and suicide are illegal, as is assisted suicide. This Bill seeks to protect an individual deliberately assisting in a suicide from the consequence of his or her action and opens a number of other difficult problems. The present law deals with this by requiring that the sick person involved is mentally competent to acquiesce in a decision to terminate his or her life and has not been subjected to arguments or actions seeking to influence that decision. Both these requirements are difficult to satisfy with certainty and the Bill seeks to pass the buck to doctors.

Determination of adequate mental capacity is a difficult process requiring specialised skill, and to further determine that external persuasion has not been used is a virtual impossibility. The Bill seeks to place the responsibility for these judgments on the doctor, ignoring the fact that family doctors are heavily overloaded with everyday work and are generally do not specialise in psychiatric matters. The great majority of doctors are opposed to the Bill, having become doctors to treat their patients, not to kill them. The approach of the Bill is to regard patient suicide as part of a patient’s treatment.

External influence may be based on the burden of care placed on others by the victim’s condition or on financial considerations. The doctor is in no position to judge these difficulties, lacking detailed knowledge of the family background. It is not surprising that most medical practitioners do not support the Bill. To suppose that lay people have superior or even adequate capability in this dangerous area is presumptuous and irresponsible.

The law as it stands is clear and has performed well. Participants in the suicide themselves presently bear the responsibilities which the Bill seeks to pass to doctors, seemingly impervious to the effects on other participants who are left clear of responsibility for their actions.

Overseas experience of assisted suicide is not encouraging. In Belgium, assisted death is available to seriously sick children, and in some adult cases it has been reported that cancer-treating drugs have been refused and assisted suicide offered as the only alternative.

Many hazards to our society lie in the acceptance of the proposed Bill and the gradual so-called normalisation of its provisions, as has occurred in other countries adopting similar proposals. Safeguards prescribed in legislation become disregarded in practice, and audits cease to be performed. Effectively, euthanasia has arrived by stealth, an outcome which has proved unhappily common.

It seems perverse to promote such measures at a time when the UK leads the world in palliative medicine and the provision of hospice care. Surely we should build on these advances to strengthen the caring attitude which underlies our support for charities in needy countries and volunteers to support that work. To seek to hazard such resources by a steady erosion of care in society would surely be tragic.

This Bill seeks to damage caring responsibilities in families and society at large by introducing crude measures amounting to a blank cheque in a highly sensitive area which have not been evaluated. I oppose the Bill.