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Second Reading

Part of Assisted Dying Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 1:46 pm on 18th July 2014.

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Photo of The Bishop of Bristol The Bishop of Bristol Bishop 1:46 pm, 18th July 2014

My Lords, many of us will speak today in the name of compassion, but, as is clear, we shall take very different views in terms of what compassion looks like in relation to those who are suffering unbearably and, in particular, as to whether my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer’s Bill is fit for the purposes he and his supporters pursue with such vigour.

I am neither a doctor nor a lawyer, but for some years I was a chaplain to a hospice at home. There I observed people who were able to die well and free from pain. What I consistently saw there was both affordable and effective palliative care.

Many of us who are opposed to the Bill are greatly concerned by the unintended consequences that it will inevitably bring into play. It is simply not good enough for those who support the Bill to dismiss out of hand this genuine concern. It is for them to give us consistent evidence that our fears are unfounded. Sadly, the available evidence appears to raise, rather than allay, anxiety. The rising numbers in applications for assisted dying wherever the law has been changed are clearly worthy of note. I note that the supporters of the Bill quote Oregon but are strangely silent on the Netherlands. Let me quote directly from a Dutch ethicist, previously in favour of assisted dying, who said that the rise in the numbers has been driven in part by some form of assisted death becoming the,

“‘default’ mode of dying for cancer patients”.

In Oregon, the percentage of referrals for psychiatric monitoring to aid the assessment as to whether a person’s decision to take their own life is from a “clear and settled intention” has fallen dramatically. That is in spite of the reality that almost 60% of those who express a wish to die suffer with issues of depression.

There is surely a rightful concern that some people will be put under severe pressure to request the right to die with assistance. My noble and right reverend friend Lord Harries of Pentregarth has already mentioned that, in Washington, 61% of those who requested the necessary drugs did so because they did not want to be a burden to their families. Which one of us does want to be a burden to our families? It is a common reflex not to want to involve our families in our ongoing care, but it is also a reflex that is capable of ready manipulation by others.

We need time to think again. My sense is that we need to halt the progress of this Bill and I agree with my colleague the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Carlisle in calling for a royal commission with a balanced membership. Theo Boer, who has already been quoted, is a member of the regional review group on euthanasia in the Netherlands. Having previously been a supporter of the legislation, he advises us in this way:

“I used to be a supporter of legislation. But now, with twelve years of experience, I take a very different view. At the very least, wait for an honest and intellectually satisfying analysis of the reasons behind the explosive increase in the numbers. Is it because the law should have had better safeguards? Or is it because the mere existence of such a law is an invitation to see assisted suicide and euthanasia as a normality instead of a last resort? Before those questions are answered, don’t go there. Once the genie is out of the bottle, it is not likely to ever go back in again”.

Noble Lords will be pressured to vote for this Bill because not to do so would be lacking in compassion. But the route suggested by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, is not the only way to alleviate the suffering of patients and relatives, and it is a route certainly fraught with danger and uncertainty.