Second Reading

Part of Assisted Dying Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 2:24 pm on 18th July 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Howarth of Breckland Baroness Howarth of Breckland Crossbench 2:24 pm, 18th July 2014

My Lords, after four and half hours of eloquent debate, what do I think? Do I understand the dilemmas that are faced in this profound question: to choose the place of your death against the sanctity of life? If this profound question is causing us difficulty, what difficulty is it causing to the general public? Because many of the arguments have been made, I want to address this debate from a different angle: how, whatever we take forward, we convey it clearly and accurately to the general public.

Like everyone else, I had a huge postbag; I think that it has been matched by equal marriage and, before that, hunting. From that, it was quite clear that, alongside those who supported the Bill because they thought that they had a right to end their life—never mind whether there was six-month prognosis or other boundaries, it was about their right to end their life—the other end of the spectrum was about the terminally ill, who feared that the Bill would give credence to anyone being able to take their life if they had a serious illness. We have to do a great deal to get that clarified, not only among the general public but among professionals. Noble Lords will also all have had letters from professionals who have profound personal experiences.

Most moving today have been the personal stories, on both sides of the argument, from individuals who have felt this very personally.

I ask myself how I can free myself from any personal prejudice in order to come to some clear understanding of the concept. I am a Christian, but do I believe that suffering outweighs compassion? What do “suffering” and “outweighing compassion” mean? That is another profound philosophical argument that theologians have written volumes about.

Do I think that pain should be constant? I had a bit of bone slide into my spine 18 months ago, as many noble Lords will know. It was the sort of pain that I did not know existed. That pain taught me two things. It taught me that pain makes you extremely vulnerable. I, fortunately, was not near the end of my life, but if I had had six months to live, was ill and in severe pain, there was a point at which I might well have said, “I really cannot endure this level of pain any more”, because the drugs I was on had no effect whatever. I think I was poorly treated, but that is a different issue. The question is whether we feel vulnerable.

I felt that I had lost all my dignity. Screaming on a bed of pain when you are used to being in control of your life taught me that people who are sick and are coming to the end of their life lose their dignity. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Winston, said earlier, dignity is the one thing that we really should afford to people in this situation.

Then I thought, “If we have to weigh up these issues, surely the answer is in the health service”. We heard from around the House earlier about doctors’ different views of the health service. Although I have shared an office with her for 15 years, I disagree profoundly with my dear noble friend Lady Warnock. It is difficult for people not to feel like a burden. Just for those few months when I was ill, I felt a terrible burden on the people who cared for me. If you are old and think that you are near the end of our life, if you have a bit of money and your family need a house, there is a tremendous pressure not to be a burden.

We have to balance that with the fact that we are about to encounter a demographic avalanche. The numbers of elderly people and sick people are increasing. How will that affect the way that we view people in the future. One of the problems that concerns me more than anything else is that we become economic units rather than individuals.

My four minutes are up, and all I would say is that we still have to think through the issues very carefully. I do not like the Bill as it stands. I have known many people who have lived longer than six months after being given six months to live. We need to take a lot of time to look at the unintended consequences and our own prejudices.