My Lords, I, like other noble Lords, have been deeply moved by the many personal letters that I have received from those diagnosed with a terminal illness, and from their relatives and the relatives of those who have died after enduring long and painful illnesses. Those letters were on both sides of the argument, but the stories and testimonies provide a context so we can understand what is in their minds and what their concerns are. The concern of many is to be able to take a degree of control at the very end of their life. I respect that, and I think most of us would respect it as well. Many are prepared to endure great suffering, eased by palliative care, while others wish for a swifter end to avoid the suffering, indignity and helplessness of their last days. Faith provides an important guide, and indeed an inspiration for many, but not all those of faith reach the same conclusion.
None of us can truly know how we will respond until our time comes. Will we wish to do all that we can to live for a little while longer, despite the pain, or will we want it to end sooner? Frankly, I do not know how I will answer that question, but I know that I want everybody to have that choice. The manner of one’s going should be a matter of personal choice. The right to die in peace is surely a personal choice, which should be upheld and recognised in law. It is wrong that a person should be forced to endure great suffering because of the genuinely strongly held views of others. We live in a democracy where citizens have the right in personal matters to make up their own minds and to act accordingly. Society should respect and protect the right to choose how you wish to die in the same way we respect other important personal freedoms.
Many important freedoms have been protected by law over the last 50 years. The right to make a choice to end your life in peace and dignity if you suffer from a terminal illness is a freedom which must also be protected and entrenched by law. The Bill will do that, and in so doing will enhance our freedoms and provide proper protection to those who help us to die as we choose. It will replace the rather murky, opaque and confusing status quo that we now have, where there is a lack of transparency and accountability. It will offer those whose only option—we have heard testimony on this today—is to starve themselves to death in lonely isolation.
The Bill is tightly drawn to permit only those with all their faculties intact, who have been diagnosed terminally ill and can be reasonably expected to die in six months, to choose the time of their death. In Committee, the Bill must be carefully scrutinised to ensure that, in both its principles and in its detailed implementation, it strikes the right balance between freedom to choose and the important protection of the vulnerable from harm. For instance, we must look carefully at the clause that defines terminally ill as someone who,
“is reasonably expected to die within six months”.
Many of us know people, or know of people, who have outlived that prediction, sometimes by many years. With medical advances, forecasting will become ever more treacherous. Perhaps a shorter period would provide greater certainty and assurance. How are the two registered medical practitioners to satisfy themselves that the decision to end life,
“has been reached voluntarily, on an informed basis and without coercion or duress”?
Key principles of the Bill will be underpinned by codes of practice, which in this instance we will wish to scrutinise most carefully.
There is much work to be done, and do it we must—otherwise the Supreme Court will take it out of our hands. This is an important and timely Bill, which is widely supported in the country, and it has my full support.