Second Reading

Part of Assisted Dying Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 3:21 pm on 18th July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Browne of Belmont Lord Browne of Belmont DUP 3:21 pm, 18th July 2014

My Lords, there is much talk of compassion and choice in this debate but we must not lose sight of the core question before us. Are we prepared to license one group of people—in this case, doctors—to involve themselves in deliberately ending the lives of another group—in this case, those who are terminally ill? That would represent a major change to the criminal law of this country. I put it to your Lordships that before we can seriously contemplate going down that road, we need convincing evidence that the law that we have is unsatisfactory and that what would be put in its place would be better. On neither count has any convincing evidence been provided.

In a civilised society we do not license an action by law simply because we can empathise with it in exceptional circumstances. None of us would want to see a father who injured an intruder while defending his family sent to prison. None of us would want to see a mother imprisoned because in desperation she stole money to feed her starving children.

We would expect to see our laws against assault and theft maintained to protect all of us, and to see exceptional cases to be dealt with exceptionally. That is what happens with the law on assisting suicide. The law makes it clear that encouraging or assisting another person's suicide is a punishable offence, and it makes anyone minded to behave in this way think very carefully before proceeding. As a result, instances are fairly rare and they tend to be those where there has been serious soul-searching and where the assistance given has been genuinely compassionate and reluctant. In such cases, the law provides discretion not to prosecute. However, that is a completely different matter from creating a licensing system for such acts within the National Health Service. Would we create a similar licensing regime for other criminal acts in exceptional circumstances? I think not, so why are we contemplating it in this case?

The evidence of how such laws work overseas is, at best, dubious and, at worst, alarming. At best, we can look forward to rising death rates from legalised assisted suicide. Oregon’s rising death rate is worrying enough; it equates currently to around 1,100 assisted suicide deaths annually in England and Wales if we had a similar law here. Neighbouring Washington is showing an even more alarming trend: its death rate from legalised assisted suicide has more than tripled in four years, and is now rising so steeply that one cannot help wondering whether Oregon has been providing an untypical and unreliable picture.

Embracing assisted suicide is a problem not just because it depends on perverse constitutional logic that undermines sensible, flexible approaches to hard cases, nor simply because of the scale of the deaths that it would facilitate. It is a huge problem because of the nature of the deaths in question. Here we come to the nub of the issue: the quest for a dignified death. In the 16 years that the law has been operational in Oregon, 22 serious complications—I do not intent to elaborate on those complications today—are known to have occurred. Six people have regained consciousness and not been counted as physician-assisted deaths. If the same percentages of complications occurred in England and Wales, on the assumption of the same rate of assisted death as in Oregon, 47 people would suffer from serious complications and 13 would regain consciousness each year. Is this death with dignity?

It is fascinating to look at the way that members of the public reassess their support for assisted suicide when acquainted with these facts. This is illustrated by the ComRes poll commissioned by CARE that was published this morning, which demonstrates how 73% support to 12% opposition becomes just 43% support to 43% opposition when people are made aware of the public safety considerations. I have no doubt that those who support the Bill have noble intentions, but I must say that I regard it as a dangerous piece of legislation.