My Lords, we have all been much influenced and moved by the letters we have received and we surely all welcome the extensive discussion that the Bill has catalysed in the media. However, all this has perhaps obscured how circumscribed the Bill is. It identifies a small category of person to whom the general law against assisted suicide should not apply, allowing those of sound mind and firm intent with a terminal disease to end their lives in a time and place of their choosing, rather than suffer a lingering decline marked by loss of autonomy and pain that can be eased only by drugs that blur the mind. It is estimated that only two people in every thousand would choose that route, although many more of us would be comforted by knowing that the option was available.
Very few people consider extension of life at all costs to be a moral imperative. We can already make choices that make our lives shorter. We can ask not to be resuscitated if we have heart failure; we can decline invasive cancer treatment; we can be prescribed pain-relieving drugs that have the secondary effect of hastening death. None the less, some survive beyond the stage where they feel that life is worth living. That is why 300 people a year with terminal illnesses commit suicide. That is why about 30 make the one-way trip to Switzerland and why the lives of loved ones are sometimes ended in ways that are, strictly, illegal. Those acts may not result in prosecution, but a shadow of criminality hangs over them and adds to the grief of those whose motive is compassion.
So the Bill should be welcomed. Unlike the present DPP guidelines, it mandates upfront safeguards and greater clarity than what now prevails. It is a misperception that support for the Bill betokens less admiration for the hospice movement or less motive to enhance palliative care. We surely need to prioritise those and, incidentally, the tackling of mental illness more broadly, and to support the far larger numbers who are driven to suicide by depression or social deprivation.
Likewise, it is a misperception that the Bill would render disabled and vulnerable individuals vulnerable to being threatened or pressurised. That concern has been expressed movingly by the noble Baroness, Lady Campbell, and others, but some offer contrary perspectives, including Professor Stephen Hawking, my colleague for 40 years. His crescendo of achievement against all the odds has been astonishing. He still craves new experiences and absolutely does not want to die. He thinks that suicide would be wrong unless one were in great pain, which, thankfully, he is not, but—this is the key point—he says that, none the less, the disabled should have the option, as others do, to choose to end their lives. Like him, I firmly support the Bill, although the safeguards may need scrutiny, especially the six-month rule and, perhaps, the need to assess emotional state as well as intellectual competence.
We in this House are not obliged to follow popular opinion, but it would surely be wrong if we did not fully scrutinise a measure with such broad national support.