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Second Reading

Part of Assisted Dying Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 1:00 pm on 18th July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Stirrup Lord Stirrup Crossbench 1:00 pm, 18th July 2014

My Lords, the proposers of the Bill are good people, of good conscience, and with good intentions. Their objective is to alleviate suffering, and who could not be sympathetic to such a cause? Like many noble Lords, I have witnessed loved ones undergoing a painful and prolonged death. I have been humbled by their courage and distressed by their anguish. They have borne their suffering with fortitude, but I have wondered why, when their lives have been so full of love, their ends should have to be so full of pain.

I, for one, have no moral or religious objections to people seeking to end their own lives. I understand why some choose to do so, and they should have that freedom. However, I have very serious concerns about people helping to take the lives of others, which is what the Bill proposes. The term “assisted suicide” appears—and perhaps is designed to appear—fairly innocuous. However, in essence it proposes to legalise participation in the taking of someone else’s life. Yes, the circumstances envisaged in the Bill are special, the person whose life is involved wills the act, and the act is intended for humanitarian purposes. However, the fact remains that individuals will be taking another’s life, which is a very serious matter indeed. Such a change in the law would be of the first importance. As a consequence, there is a very great burden of proof on those who propose that to show that they are not opening a Pandora’s box.

That is doubly so, given the involvement of doctors in the process. I have close family ties to the medical profession, and have thought long and hard on this aspect of the Bill. Very properly, we have a prohibition on doctors actively taking human life. Some would argue that abortion crosses such a line, but I believe that the laws on abortion are based on a judgment of when a person’s life might be deemed to start. That is of course a matter of debate—sometimes violent debate—but, accepting the disagreement on that point, the logic of the position seems clear. Doctors may of course withhold artificial support to life, and death may be the result. However, they are not in that case actively involved in the taking of a life. The absolute prohibition remains intact.

The Bill seeks to remove that prohibition. Some might say that the act cannot be ascribed to the doctor. The patient administers the drug; the doctor merely prescribes it. Doctors very rarely administer the drugs they prescribe. However, if a doctor mistakenly prescribes an incorrect drug or dose, and a nurse administers the drug and the patient dies as a result, the doctor remains responsible. He or she cannot avoid accountability just by the addition of further steps in the treatment process. Under the proposals of the Bill, doctors will be killing people. The killing is, of course, intended to alleviate suffering. It is at the patient’s express wish, and with their active participation. However, a line will have been crossed. What will then be the next step? How long will it be before the circumstances in which assisted suicide is legal will be broadened—each step small and seductive in itself, but adding up to a great distance? Where will it end? How, in the absence of the absolute prohibition, will we defend against further encroachment and the obvious dangers that could result? The Bill answers none of those questions.

A good military defensive position requires suitable terrain—a river, or perhaps high ground. If one intends to retreat from that position, one needs to know in advance where the next defensible line is, otherwise one simply keeps retreating, and risks the retreat becoming a rout. The Bill takes no such precaution, and therefore opens the way to an unpredictable and potentially very dangerous future.