My Lords, there is already a “right to die”. There is nothing in law to stop us dying if we wish to do so. We hear a lot of talk about people being kept alive against their will, but there is nothing in law to prevent a patient from telling a doctor that he or she does not want to continue with life-saving treatment. Indeed, a doctor who continued with treatment in the face of such a request would be guilty of an offence.
However, this Bill is about something else. It is not about giving us a right to die; it is about licensing doctors to involve themselves in deliberately bringing about the deaths of some of their patients. We sometimes hear the argument that, if it is acceptable for a doctor to withdraw life-saving treatment at a patient’s request, it should be equally acceptable for a doctor to comply with a patient’s request to be given lethal drugs. But there is a world of difference between the two situations. A refusal of further treatment is not the same as a suicide wish. A patient refusing treatment is accepting that nature should take its course. When a doctor complies with such a request, he or she is not withdrawing treatment in order to end the patient’s life. Intention is vital in such matters.
It is claimed that doctors sometimes end the lives of seriously ill patients on the quiet because the law would not allow them to do so. An assisted dying law, it is claimed, would introduce regulation into this area. The evidence for this is scanty and in some respects the reverse is true. The most authoritative research on the subject, by Professor Clive Seale, has concluded that such illegal action by doctors in Britain is—I quote his words—“rare or non-existent”. By contrast, other research has indicated that, where assisted dying has been legalised, the incidence of illegal action by doctors—that is, ending the lives of patients in a way not allowed under the law—is higher.
We should remember that laws do more than just regulate. They also change the culture. A law that says that it is acceptable for doctors to involve themselves in bringing about the deaths of this or that group of patients—in this case, people who are terminally ill—sends the message that this or that group should be seen as candidates for death rather than as patients to be cared for. The clinical ban on ending life may not suit every patient all the time, but it is necessary if we are to be able to place our lives in the hands of doctors with confidence and without fear.