My Lords, in a debate last December, I said that legalising assisted dying would mean licensing doctors to involve themselves in deliberately bringing about the deaths of some of their patients. The noble Lord, Lord Beecham, in a very moving speech, said that I was wrong, as the Bill of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, deals specifically with self-administering drugs. However, it is clear that, under the draft legislation, a doctor would become inextricably connected to the process of assisting a patient’s suicide by obtaining the approval of their patient and the supply of life-ending drugs. If this was not the case, we would not have such a Bill before us. That is why doctors’ opinions are so important when we consider amending the law. Most doctors do not want that responsibility and nor do their professional bodies. The Royal College of Physicians has stated explicitly that a doctor’s duty of care for patients,
“does not include being, in any way, part of their suicide”.
It is undeniable that there are harrowing stories of painful and distressing deaths; we have heard many today. I am not without sympathy for the intent behind the Bill. However, I fear that its very existence, with its inadequate safeguards, could lead far beyond where its supporters envisage, as has happened in other countries, to a situation where voluntary death is normalised and expanded. I worry, too, about the pressure put on the elderly and the vulnerable, and about their state of mind.
When I was 18, I broke my back in a riding accident. I was in great pain and, after being taken off morphine injections, I was prescribed distalgesics. I had been very active but now did not know whether I would ever walk again and feared becoming a burden to my parents, who were elderly. So I became very clever at not taking all my tablets and keeping a store of them, just in case. I do not think I would ever have taken them; I just wanted to be free from the pain and I was obviously depressed—an important theme picked up by my noble friend Lady O’Cathain. I was lucky: a wonderful nurse befriended me and helped me to feel positive and, after a long time, I got better.
What if, instead of me stockpiling distalgesics, a Bill to assist suicide had been on the statute book and I had been in that frame of mind? I know that my circumstances were very different from those envisaged under the Bill, but they are not too different from some of those young people who seek support to end their lives in jurisdictions that have changed the law, which started off, not too long ago, with the same intention as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. Those jurisdictions which decriminalised assisted dying and euthanasia did so because assisted dying took too long. In Oregon, some people have taken up to four days to die, and six people have woken up after being given their lethal dose. None of them had a second go.
I told my story to illustrate how, when you are in desperate pain and question the quality of your life—which is the driving force behind most patients who seek physician-assisted suicide in countries where it is legal—that is when you are at your most vulnerable and your mental state most fragile. It is then, more than ever, that you need the best possible medical care and the full and unambiguous protection of the law.