Second Reading

Part of Assisted Dying Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 6:27 pm on 18th July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Wills Lord Wills Labour 6:27 pm, 18th July 2014

My Lords, like many others, I have struggled to reach a definitive view on this Bill, not least because of the many moving letters I have received on both sides of the argument, but in the end I decided that I cannot support it. The Bill addresses the nature and value of human life and such profound issues should not be influenced by opinion polls, which are just snapshots of the popular mood where the answer is determined so much by the way the question is asked. They should not be influenced by PR campaigns, and the experience of other countries should not be determinative. The exemplars for the changes proposed in the Bill are small states that are significantly different from this country, although of course there are lessons that might be learnt from them.

As other speakers have said, making the decision on principle is difficult because the issue pits two generally accepted goods against each another: on the one hand, the autonomy and freedom of the individual, and on the other the sanctity of life. How each of us strikes that balance will be influenced by personal circumstances, including our own life and religious faith. I should declare that I lack religious faith but that my decision has been influenced by the death of my mother.

I accept that the Bill strives to strike a balance between these two principles, but I think it gets it wrong because I believe it will start a process in which the safeguards against the taking of life will continue to be eroded and, as a result, greater harm will be done if this Bill becomes law than if it does not. My concern flows from the fact that the two, linked, principles that appear to underpin the Bill—the right to the individual's autonomy over their own life and the right to end intolerable suffering—are not clearly reflected in the drafting. If the guiding principle is one of autonomy, then a time limit transgresses it. If the guiding principle is one of relief from intolerable suffering, why should a time limit be imposed when the longer the suffering, the greater the case for such relief? In those circumstances, if the Bill becomes law and the principles underpinning it become established, I cannot imagine how, over time, legislators will be able politically to resist the claims of those who argue for an extension of the right to an assisted death. I cite the case, for example, of a diagnosis of an invariably fatal illness such as mesothelioma, where the prognosis is clear and involves great suffering for which very little effective palliative care is available but where the progress of the disease may take 18 months.

The difficulties of definition in the drafting of the Bill, about which other speakers have already said a great deal today, could, over time, further encourage the erosion of the safeguards which almost everyone in your Lordships’ House today seems to agree should be there. There may be a case for assisted dying on demand in cases of intolerable and unrelievable suffering, but that is not what we are debating today, and yet that is where we could well end up if this Bill becomes law. And I fear that.

The more the scope for assisted dying is widened, the greater is the potential for abusive pressure on the physically and mentally frail to end their lives. I do not share the idealism of other noble Lords that such pressure will never take place. It will often be subtle and difficult to protect against, and certainly this Bill offers no adequate protections. The more such abuses happen, the more thoroughly our society will be brutalised. The more that the law, which reflects and sets standards for our society, allows that to happen, the more thoroughly our society will be brutalised.

Finally, I want briefly to raise one other subsidiary concern about the Bill and that is the wide and imprecise scope it gives to the state in Clauses 4 and 8. I believe it is wrong that the state should be given such power over the taking of life. In my view, these clauses are unacceptable as they extend executive power into areas where it should have no place. My view that this Bill strikes the balance between competing principles in the wrong place is strengthened by the guidelines issued by the DPP in 2010 which, wisely and compassionately, address the widespread concerns that were raised the last time this issue was debated in your Lordships’ House about the position of loved ones who assist suicide.

By opposing this Bill, I must accept that I am supporting the continuation of suffering in particular cases. But I have, with great difficulty, concluded that to support the Bill would, over time, also result in suffering and abuse and the brutalising of our society. I cannot support it.