Second Reading

Part of Assisted Dying Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 6:18 pm on 18th July 2014.

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Photo of Baroness Berridge Baroness Berridge Conservative 6:18 pm, 18th July 2014

My Lords, as the youngest Peer speaking today, I suppose that I should be the least concerned about a Bill dealing with death. However, I believe that it is mine and younger generations who could be most affected by the Bill. We will live out the effects of the erosion of the social norm that we not only dissuade suicide but positively protect people from taking their lives, whoever they are.

The suspect in the custody suite and the convicted criminal in prison are put on suicide watch if necessary. Paracetamol packets are now limited to 32 tablets, Beachy Head is patrolled and the Golden Gate Bridge will soon have a net. King Edgar criminalised attempting suicide—ironically, probably to have men to fight wars—but we want our population alive as we are all equally precious. I have read with interest the reasoning in Hansard in 1961. The law criminalises assistance at a time of someone’s greatest vulnerability: when contemplating taking one’s own life. Although suicide and prostitution are not appropriate to be crimes, assisting suicide and controlling prostitution for gain are. The criminal law is upholding societal values. You may walk past the man on the bridge who is about to jump, as you are not required to rescue him, but if you intervene you do so to preserve life.

Noble Lords need only go online to see how necessary this reasoning is, and how relevant it is to the challenges that today’s young people face. Tallulah Wilson’s mother stated that companies should,

“withdraw their advertising from those sites who continue to host inappropriate self-harming and suicide-promoting blogs to stop this poison spreading”.

Her 15 year-old daughter, caught in a toxic digital world, threw herself under a train. offers “Suicidal Tendencies” music, and it is estimated that between one in 12 and one in 15 young people in the UK self-harm. I contacted the vicar of a busy Oxford church who has spent years dealing with students—there are 1,200 in his congregation—and said, “What about self-harm?”. His text reply was, “EPIDEMIC”.

We are so much more than autonomy. Even in our youth we are actually dependent and often weak and vulnerable. Society’s value of human dignity cannot be collapsed into mere autonomy, as the Bill seeks to do. “Are you not compassionate to these people’s suffering and their right to choose?”, you might ask me. Of course I am, but law is about more than a small group of individuals’ rights against the state. Herein lies the main weakness of our human rights law; it fails to take into account the rights of the rest of society. I am a supporter of the European convention. We may be heading towards the constitutional irony that even if there were a declaration of incompatibility, Parliament could leave the law unchanged and we might in fact find ourselves backed by the Strasbourg court rather than undermined.

Law creates culture and affects the values of future generations. The decision to give health professionals, of all people, a role in assisting suicide would inevitably send a message about suicide itself and cannot be vacuum-packed away from the rest of our society. We legislate for a real and deeply imperfect world, a world not of speculation but of Westbourne View and Mid Staffordshire hospital—a world where increasingly you are valuable only if you are productive, good-looking, rich or in the media regularly. However, we also legislate now for a virtual world that is often explored only by the young, and is often far scarier and far more difficult to police. The Bill undermines the societal value that we discourage suicide, and for this and other reasons I oppose it.