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Baroness Finlay of Llandaff: My Lords, I had the honour to serve on the Select Committee. Those pressing to change the law tell us that what they euphemistically call "assisted dying" encourages the development of good palliative care. Let us look at that claim. One of the many letters I received during the course of our inquiry was from two consultants, who described a 31 year-old woman, living in Holland, with an advanced cervical cancer.
She chose to return home to Newcastle because, she told them, she was being offered euthanasia on every doctor's ward round, like a treatment option, and had felt pressured to accept the offer. In Newcastle, they dealt with her problems of pain and incontinence, and she was able to spend several weeks with her three-year-old son before dying peacefully from her illness.
The evidence that our committee heard in Holland illustrates their lack of specialist palliative care. We heard that 84 per cent of those requesting euthanasia are in pain, and 70 per cent have difficulty breathingnot good palliative care by any standards. One in 32 dies by such means there, not the small numbers of which the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, has spoken. Volume III of our report has evidence from Dutch physician Bert Keizer, who wrote:
"I would rather die in a country where euthanasia is forbidden but where doctors do know how to look after a dying patient in a humane manner than I would in a country where palliative medicine is ignored but euthanasia can be easily arranged".
But what about Oregon? As in Holland, palliative care in Oregon is not an accredited medical specialty. Last year, the Journal of Palliative Medicine reported that, after seven years of legalised assistance with suicide, palliative care in Oregon for people in the final week of life had actually worsened. Three years ago, another report on end-of-life care in the US found that less than 20 per cent of Oregon hospitals had palliative care programmes, and it gave Oregon a Grade E for end-of-life care. However, we are being told that Oregon is the model to follow, and that the take-up rate of assisted suicide is small. Well, every annual report into the working of the law by the Oregon health department has the caveat:
"Our numbers are based on a reporting system for terminally ill patients who legally receive prescriptions for lethal medications and do not include patients and physicians who may act outside the [law]".
The latest Oregon health department report confirms that the percentage of patients referred to a specialist for psychological evaluation has declined from 31 per cent in 1998 to only 5 per cent now. Yet excluding depression, which occurs in more than one in five such patients, is key to assessing competence. And Oregon's data indicate "doctor shopping". More than two-thirds of patients changed their doctor to get a lethal prescription written, so the doctor writing the prescription knew little about them beyond the case notes.
Why do people seek death? Overwhelmingly, people who ask to die are confused, depressed, feel that they are a burden, feel unconnected to the world around them, and are fearful. The great majority of ill people go through this as they grieve for their health and the life they used to have. I have had the honour of caring for many thousands of such patients, but the present law protects them from harming themselves.
Even the most determined can have a change of heart. In 1991, a GP referred a young dying man to me, asking for help because the man only wanted euthanasia; he was refusing all care and his GP did not know what to do. With a prognosis of weeks, he was desperate to die, but pain and immobility gradually improved. Ten years later his wife died of pancreatic cancer, leaving him lone parent of their three children. Now he says to me, "Ilora, don't go there. I cannot bear to think what would have happened to my kids if I had been able to have euthanasia". But he fulfilled every criterion of every assisted dying Bill I have ever seen, and there is no doubt that he would have gone ahead with it.
Palliative care is advancing rapidly. New drugs are emerging, as are better ways of using the ones we have. Doctors who care day in, day out for dying patients know that, whatever was the case 30 years ago, you no longer need to kill the patient to kill the pain.
Let us be crystal clear about what "assisted dying" really involves. It is not giving a little more morphine or sedative so the patient can relax and let go of life. No, it is a massive overdose of barbiturates50 times the therapeutic doseand, in the case of euthanasia, the Dutch protocol advises an injection of curare to paralyse the patient completely to prevent breathing.
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Where the overdose is taken by mouth, as in Oregon's assisted suicides, those who ingest it sometimes do not die for more than 30 hours and a few even wake up again.
This is a Rubicon that we must not cross. When I was a newly qualified doctor, I thought that we should allow euthanasia, but now I am certain that even physician-assisted suicide is too dangerous to adopt and that the words of the Hippocratic Oath are as true today as they ever were. They state:
Baroness Jay of Paddington: My Lords, I have been passed a note which states that the list of speakers has been changed. With the permission of the House, I shall therefore speak now instead of my noble friend.
It was a great privilege to serve on the committee under the absolutely exemplary chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern. His leadership enabled us to produce this unanimous report and to reintroduce the subject of assisted dying into this new Parliament. As has been said, everybody who served on the committee learned a great deal from our extensive inquiries. I found it an enormously educative experience. I remind the House that I was a member of the previous committee, which, 10 years ago, recommended that the legal prohibition of assisted dying should remain. However, I have been convinced both by the ethical arguments of personal autonomy and by the practical issues of patient choice in 21st-century medicine to change my mind. I now believe very strongly that the law must change.
In the brief time allotted to us all today, we are bound to make points about a complex subject in headline terms. My first headline is that it is extremely important for Parliament to listen to public opinion. After all, this is a difficult legal and ethical issue, but everyone has personal experience of death and of dying. Polling evidence can always be challenged, but no responsible survey that I have seen has shown less than 70 per cent support for a change in the law. Would it be that many of the measures which we pass in this House had that level of approbation.
Expert medical evidence quite rightly played a large part in our inquiries and medical opinion appears to be changing. One eminent doctor who gave us evidence told us that he hoped that opposition to the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe,
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I shall briefly address some of the concerns of palliative care which the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay, has just raised. I believe that doctors in her specialty remain more adamantly opposed to the change in the law than many of their colleagues. I shall précis their arguments, again in headline terms. They argueand the noble Baroness argued this most articulately throughout our hearingsthat their specialist services can solve all the concerns of a dying person and therefore remove the need for assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia.
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Thomas, I see no dichotomy at all between supporting, extending and improving every type of palliative care and supporting the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe. As a health Minister and through my very long associations with the National Health Service, I have always supported the hospice movement and palliative care in all its forms, but this is not an either/or question.
One of the most telling lessons we learnt as a Select Committee was that for some terminally ill patientsand we should not argue on the basis of particular anecdotespalliative care, however expertly given, is just not the solution. For such people, who are probably always in a minority and perhaps a small minority, the loss of independence, control and dignitywhich is what one might call a much more existential form of sufferingis what makes them seek assisted suicide. We saw that vividly illustrated during our visit to the state of Oregon; personally, I would hope that our legislation would closely follow the Oregon Death with Dignity Act rather than the experience in the Netherlands. A recent research report, written by our committee's special adviser, Dr Farsides, noted:
"There was nothing to suggest that the Act had had a detrimental effect on end-of-life care . . . it would appear that change has taken place in parallel to concerted efforts . . . to care for dying patients".
Also in her review, Dr Farsides noted that there was no evidence of the so-called slippery slopethe increased demand made by the availability of assisted suicide in Oregon. Since the legislation for physician-assisted suicide, the numbers of people using the provisions of the Act has remained stable and small for eight years.
I give a final headline. The experience of Oregon shows that far more people ask for a lethal prescription than actually use it. For many, it is seen as a comforting insurance policy against unbearable suffering. Most importantly, it gives the patient ultimate personal control over when and how they dieover the end-of-life decision. In our very civilised secular society, I do not believe that we can deny that final right to our citizens. This Government have a proud record in social policy of extending and improving human rights. The Select Committee has indicated a clear way forward. A new Bill, to be introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, can provide an historic opportunity to add to that record. I follow
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my noble friend Lord Carter in asking the Minister to receive this report favourably and for the Government to give the Bill a fair wind.
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