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Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, like the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, I regret that this debate has been presented in some quarters as representing a difference between those who hold a religious faith and those who are devoid of faith. As he rightly pointed out, some opponents of the Bill hold no religious faith. I am sure that he would accept that the converse is equally true, as has just emerged from what we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. Those who oppose the Bill are not necessarily speaking on behalf of all believers or all faiths. We respect one another's views, but we do not speak on this issue with one voice. Nor is this a debate between those who respect human life and those who are indifferent to it. I fully respect the sanctity of life of someone who wishes to live. That is why I support the peace movement and why I campaigned for human rights before they became fashionable.
I have received, like many of your Lordships, an avalanche of letters of varying quality, influenced no doubt by the somewhat dramatic warnings that their authors seem to have been given. They tell me that I should be pressing for medical and palliative care instead. There is no "instead", as the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, and my noble friend Lady Hayman made clear. The proponents of the Bill strongly support the provision of medical treatment and palliative care for all who wish to avail themselves of them. I believe that
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everything should be done to preserve the life and the best possible quality of life of someone who wishes to live.
Some of your Lordships seem very perturbed at what was called the "slippery slope". I do not believe that anyone who is familiar with your Lordships' House can believe in the possibility of some unnoticed slippery slope in the future; scrutiny in this House would preclude any such possibility. Perhaps we would be wiser to debate the Bill that is before us and not some speculative nightmare that has not been proposed.
I was puzzled to be told by one correspondent that he was precluded by his faith from accepting my argument that human beings have a right to choose. I do not doubt his sincerity and I defend his right to practise his faith and to abstain from any act that it precluded. My difficulty with his argumentpace the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albansis whether he should be entitled to impose his faith on those who do not share it. That is not exercising his right; it is denying the right of someone else.
It is inevitable that much of this debate will be anecdotal. My mother had been a byword all her life for stoical indifference to pain. She never allowed it to interfere with what needed to be done, but in her 80th year she contracted cancer. She did not complain, but as the pain became worse she knew that she could not hide it. She was excluded from what was going on in the house because she was confined to bed. There came a time when she said to me, "I wish I were dead". That was not a momentary aberration; her mind was perfectly clear. But that option was not open to her. For three months, she was compelled to drag out a life that she would have wished to end. I believe that it would have been compassionate to give her that choice. It would not have been my choice for her; I would have tried to dissuade her. Indeed, if she had known that the choice would have been available to her had she felt driven to it, I believe that she might have taken a different view. However, I believe that to withhold that choice from her was indefensible. That is why I support the Bill.
Viscount Craigavon: My Lords, on the last two occasions when this subject was debated, I fully supported the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, and I continue to do so. Even more so now do I believe in the desirability of further examination at Committee stage of what is proposed. As the noble Lord, Lord St John of Fawsley, said, your Lordships' House is an ideal forum for such examination.
Owing to the time pressures of this debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay of Llandaff, came up with a string of assertions of what she believed were the defects of this Bill. It would be ideal if all her points could be examined and debated in Committee. If we come to that point at the end of today by passing the Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, to commit the Bill to a Committee of the Whole House, I sincerely hope that any opposition will be entirely constructive.
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I believe that, as many noble Lords have said, we should be taking more account of public opinion. However much some inconvenient opinion polls are discounted, it seems to me to be clear that a convincing majority of the public are in favour of some change in the law. My justification for that view are the figures that I used in our previous debate and those that the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, quoted today.
I have wanted to ask many speakers who have opposed the Bill today this question: are you content that we should have a continuing procession of cases to Zurich in Switzerland involving people who do not accept the present orthodoxy offered by the Churches and by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay?
I recommend that anyone who is trying in future to understand this stage of our debate should listen to a recording of what some of your Lordships may have heard on Radio 4 just after eight o'clock this morning. It was a perfect vignette of our arguments. A distressing case was articulately presented by a woman called Sally McIntosh, who would have liked to have been able to avail herself of what the Bill would allow. However, she said that she had only a few weeks to live and could not get the paperwork required by Swiss rules ready in time.
That was followed by the two Archbishops, who had absolutely nothing to offer that individual. They went on, in the expected form of words, to question the concept of autonomy and to argue that, because it is impossible to get the law into a perfect state, everything should remain unchanged. That woman had consciously and with rational consideration rejected palliative care, but that strategy is not allowed by the Churches or by the noble Baroness, Lady Finlay. Because of what I call their absolute position, whatever distressing circumstances you might describe, you are told that you have not thought it through properly. My noble friend Lady Finlay told us in her speech that when she hears the words, "I wish I were dead", she needs to interpret them for youon the grounds that you do not really mean what you say. And I imagine that if you are not convinced by her first interpretation, she will explain again, and so on. I am not just personalising this on her: that is now the attitude of the Churches, and I would personally call it "Kafka-esque". That is the intractable difficulty of the position where no exceptions are allowed in the debate.
In my view, the discussions around autonomy have become a self-induced fog, to obfuscate the debate and to cause apparent uncertainty. It sometimes seems like a medieval disputation that, almost by definition, has no solution hence no conclusion can be arrived at. Similarly, it sometimes appears that because perfection cannot be reached in framing a law in this apparently very difficult area, nothing should ever be done. In my opinion, those have become largely excuses. We get the phenomenon of "society" being defined in such a way that it can never, by definition, allow enough autonomy ever to permit a decision for people to be allowed to avail themselves of the option under this Bill. I believe that those amount to excuses for perpetual inaction. We should be more practical.
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Lord Laing of Dunphail: My Lords, in supporting the Bill, I acknowledge the risks. But let us not overstate them to the extent that the benefits are submerged. We must keep our eyes firmly on the intention behind the Bill, which is to achieve the legal framework for competent, terminally ill adults to die with dignity at a time of their own choosing and in the controlled manner that they desperately seek. In our heart of hearts, is that not what we would all pray for and hope for?
While containment of pain is obviously important, I base my arguments on quality of life. The briefest examination of the evidence from Oregon reveals that this particular group of patients are motivated not by pain, but by their own judgments and the quality of their lives. Why on earth should we refuse to grant a competent adult their request to receive assistance in dying when suffering unbearably from an illness such as motor neurone disease?
Is it not a form of arrogance to deny someone such as I have described the right to take their onward journey with dignity and in their own time? Which of us has the right to say, "No, you can't"? If someone who is near the end of their life feels that their life is without value, why should we force them to live against their will?
A person contemplating assisted suicide will no doubt bear in mind the views of the Church. But I believe that one has a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ. If after prayer one chooses assisted suicide, that is a personal decision between oneself and one's maker. We should bear in mind that God gave us free will.
It is a strange coincidence that we are debating this issue almost four years to the day that brave Dianne Pretty died. I, like the majority of the population at the time, did not believe that she should have had to suffer the indignity of dying in the manner she feared; a manner contrary to all her values. Since then, many others have been forced to go on living against their will and I hope that this House will have the compassion to spare others the same fate.
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