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Second Reading

Part of Assisted Dying Bill [HL] – in the House of Lords at 6:46 pm on 18th July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Mitchell Lord Mitchell Labour 6:46 pm, 18th July 2014

My Lords, on 9 October in the year 2000, my parents-in-law, Jack and Ruth Lowy, committed joint suicide—double exit, I think they call it. Jack was born in Bratislava in what was then Czechoslovakia. The family were Jewish and, following the events in Munich in 1938, they got out quickly. They went to America and, when war was declared, Jack joined the Czech division of the RAF in Canada and then worked in British intelligence. After the war, he went back to Czechoslovakia as part of a debrief mission. There he saw that his whole family and everyone he knew had been wiped out by the Nazis. He was scarred for ever. He was a brilliant scientist, a professor in biophysics specialising in the movement of muscles. His work required him to conduct experiments on animal tissue, and he spent much of his time at the Daresbury particle accelerator. In those days, no one quite understood the long-term dangers of radiation and protection was rudimentary. For him, it was fatal. In 1998, he was diagnosed as having acute myeloid leukaemia, which he knew was 100% terminal. Jack told me, in his usual very direct manner, “Parry, I am bloody well going out with my boots on”. There was not much room for misinterpretation.

Gradually, relations between them and us closed down. They disappeared into their own secret world of preparation and disengagement. Letters were returned, e-mails bounced back and telephone calls went to the answering machine. We were bereft. We had no one to talk to and, to be honest, no one believed us. When we said there was a chance that Ruth would commit suicide along with him, people shook their heads in disbelief. My wife, in particular, was convinced that it was going to happen, but there was nothing she could do and no one to advise her. Even more to the point, there was no one to counsel Jack and no one on hand to help Ruth in what must have been an absolute hell. Being the scarred Holocaust survivor that Jack was and the brilliant scientist that he had become, there was no way he was going to get it wrong. He amassed sufficient barbiturates, and both their deaths were completed to perfection.

If there had been assisted dying legislation at that time, I am certain that things would have turned out differently. First of all, we could have talked about it openly without the fear of legal consequences. We could have engaged all sorts of professional help. My father-in-law would have been able to die in circumstances not clouded by a veil of secrecy and subterfuge. I believe that we would have been able to say our goodbyes to him in an open and loving way, as opposed to being harshly rejected.

I will never be certain why my mother-in-law decided to join him. Was it for love? Was it for duty? Was it because she was frightened? Or maybe, as I suspect, they both knew that she could well run the risk of being charged with committing a crime as an accomplice. I simply do not know. But had this Bill been law then she might have chosen to live. All I do know is that my family could well have been spared a double bereavement that was unnecessarily brutal and psychologically damaging for us, and for that reason I have no hesitation in supporting this Bill.