Second Reading

Part of Assisted Dying Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 5:07 pm on 18th July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench 5:07 pm, 18th July 2014

My Lords, I am not sure about that. I find all this very difficult, and this excellent debate makes it no easier. I am envious of those for whom it is clear and set out in black and white, but it seems to me to be a matter of balance. One is balancing personal autonomy against society’s rules, prohibitions and taboos, and that is difficult. I have huge respect for those who argue against the Bill, and in particular I have huge respect for the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, but I do not think that she is being quite fair when she urges the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, to quantify what would be the precise effect in terms of the number of cases if his option became the law of the land. He has given the Oregon numbers—80 cases out of 30,000 deaths annually—but we all know that in Oregon there are many more people who equip themselves for an assisted death but in the end do not choose to go that way. What they were seeking was the comfort of knowing that they had the option.

Moreover, if we turn the question put by the noble Baroness, Lady Grey-Thompson, on its head, no one here knows for sure—with all due respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Young of Old Scone, and her estimates—what the numbers are in this country right now. No one knows how many people currently try to do an amateur job on themselves and botch it. No one knows how many are helped by compassionate friends, relatives, nurses or doctors running the risk of a police investigation. Lastly, no one knows about the ill intentioned. The noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, has said that the Bill is a, “breeding ground for vultures”. Well, if there are vultures around, they must be out there now because, presumably, they are not sitting on the benches waiting for the Bill.

What about the safeguards? There would be two doctors, acting independently, and four tests, including the doctors’ need to satisfy themselves that the decision the patient was making was informed, voluntary and free from pressure. Will those safeguards not reduce opportunities for ill intention? It is quite hard to see how we could increase them. Does the noble Lord, Lord Mawhinney, really believe that no one now is persuaded to worry about becoming a burden on others—that that risk will arise only if the Bill becomes law? The noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, was very critical of the safeguards; she mentioned Dr Shipman, as did the noble Baroness, Lady Masham. My respect for the medical profession is rather greater than that. However, whether the safeguards are sufficient or not seems to be an excellent issue to explore in Committee.

Finally, I hear the slippery-slope argument. I heard it brilliantly argued by the noble Lord, Lord Brennan; we also heard it from the noble Lord, Lord McColl, and it was very strikingly argued by the noble Lord, Lord Haworth. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, gave the answer to it in advance. The law would not change again unless Parliament changed it. That is the correct answer to the slippery-slope argument. However, I can see that the slippery-slopists have a point. The Mansfield judgment was followed in due course by the Wilberforce Bill and the abolition of slavery. We used to hang little boys for pinching a purse. In the end, we now do not hang anyone at all. Society’s rules on the rules changed; the point of balance moved. Currently, public opinion is clearly behind the law; the DPP, wisely, applies the law only partially. The Supreme Court has nudged us to revisit the law. The status quo—with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Phillips—is a mess. That is why it is right that the Bill should proceed. I pay tribute to its opponents, who have agreed that that should be the case.