Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, my father, who died aged 57, said to me in the mid-1950s, "I used to be in favour of euthanasia until I listened to a debate in their Lordships' House". I looked up that debate from 1950 and I saw why he had had his mind changed. There was also a reference in that debate to a 1936 Bill for euthanasia, against which, I am proud to say, my grandfather voted—I see no reason why his grandson should not vote against this Bill today, despite the colour of his socks.

When my father was dying, I was absolutely longing for him to die, because he was in such great pain. I almost said—in fact, I probably did say—to the doctor, "Please can't you give him something?". The doctor was Irish and had been trained at Trinity College Dublin in 1923. He obviously did not do so deliberately, but he made absolutely sure that my father suffered no pain. That seems to me the way it should happen. Incidentally, he said in front of my stepmother after my father died, "Michael, you have three Lady Onslows to look after, and a very wary path you will have to tread between them". He was the best of old-fashioned doctors who instinctively understood palliative care.

The Bill will not only permit assisted suicide, but by implication encourage it. That is why it is wrong. As the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, said, this matter is so complicated that it is too complicated for legal definition. In my view, it is somewhere where you need an element of hypocrisy, which allows you to pretend
 
12 May 2006 : Column 1256
 
one thing and possibly do another, but you know that you have got to deal with the integrity of the doctor and of the medical profession.

The main reason my father's mind was changed was the point made by several noble Lords. The noble Lord, Lord Tombs, made it so accurately when he said that the Bill will encourage those of a mean-minded disposition who possibly have hopes of an inheritance to get their hands on that inheritance earlier. The Bill will encourage, not just permit, assisted suicide and, above all, it will make the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, subject to greater pressure. After we heard the noble Baroness's speech, which was totally gut-wrenching, we probably should have stopped the debate, voted and slung out the Bill on the basis of her speech alone. I will, with pleasure, in memory of my father and in honour of the noble Baroness, Lady Symons, vote against the Bill.

2.41 pm

Baroness Tonge: My Lords, I support the Bill introduced by the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, after 40 years' professional and personal experience, of which I will not recount the details. In that time, medicine has changed hugely. Doctors are no longer regarded as God, and there is a much more equal balance in the doctor-patient relationship. Patients want the right to make their own decisions about life and death, and opinion polls reveal that 80 per cent of the public support that right.

I shall make a few other brief points, but first I want to dispel a myth. I have had a lot of letters saying that the Bill is contrary to the Hippocratic oath and therefore, as a doctor, I must not support it. In fact, that oath is rarely used nowadays. I did not take it when I qualified as a doctor and neither did any of my colleagues. In 1994, the British Medical Journal reported on a questionnaire sent to 27 UK clinical medical schools. Thirteen schools, including Oxford and Cambridge, did not require graduates to take any oath, four used the declaration of Geneva, five used their own wording and only three still used the Hippocratic oath. That is in reply to a lot of letters I have received.

Much has been said about medical opinion being against the Bill. Yet, the Select Committee heard the chairman of the BMA Medical Ethics Committee declare that many doctors consider assisted dying to be,

The Royal College of General Practitioners and the Royal College of Physicians, after at first adopting a neutral stance like the BMA, have reverted to opposition after a consultation with their members that asked them to agree or disagree with this statement:


 
12 May 2006 : Column 1257
 

That is hardly an unbiased question to have to answer, and many of their members have objected to it. Medical opinion is therefore as divided as ever. Some prefer the "trust me, I'm a doctor" approach. Professor Clive Seale of Brunel University, who was mentioned earlier, showed the extent of this. He did a survey this year that showed that 30 per cent of all deaths are preceded by the withdrawal of treatment and 33 per cent of all deaths follow treatment with double effect—I am sure noble Lords know what that means. Around 370,000 patients died in one year, and we do not know whether they were consulted. Is that not in itself a slippery slope?

Other doctors would prefer a legal framework for their activities and would support the Bill, including, of course, more palliative care. I urge noble Lords to listen to public opinion, to think very carefully on this occasion and, whether they agree or disagree with the Bill, to allow it the dignity of consideration in Committee, not the sudden death of defeat at Second Reading.

2.45 pm

Viscount Tenby: My Lords, since there is little time to deal with the technical points in the Bill, and they have anyway already been covered very capably, I will be one of those painting the broader picture. I am concerned that the Bill will ultimately lead to another law, the law of unintended consequences, to which other noble Lords have referred. No one doubts the compassion and, as has already been said, the courage of my noble friend the promoter of the Bill. No one can have failed to have been moved by the immensely harrowing cases reported by the media. But I remember similar good intentions over the Abortion Act. We all cheered at the elimination of back-street abortions and the empowerment of women, but now, 40 years on, where are we? London has the title of the abortion capital of Europe, and abortion is freely used as a means of contraception. Where good intentions kick-start reform, only too frequently greed and unscrupulous behaviour follow. No law can satisfy everyone. Laws cannot be precisely targeted at small groups of people without the risk of others being harmed through collateral damage. In this case, the damage could be irreparable.

I am chairman of a residential home for women with learning difficulties and physical disabilities. I regard it as a great honour and find it very enriching to be able to help the well-being and quality of life of those not born with the good fortune we enjoy, yet who accept their lot with an honesty and infectious love of life that is truly remarkable. I am sure that those who work in the hospice movement and in palliative care generally share my experience. As has already been said, an urgent reassessment of the funding of palliative care is needed to smooth out and remove the postcode lottery involved so that the splendid efforts of the charitable organisations can be matched. Let the legacy of this splendid debate not be worthy but divisive legislation, however well intentioned, that would place an intolerable burden on the medical profession and that
 
12 May 2006 : Column 1258
 
would inevitably worry and alienate many of the most vulnerable in our country. Instead, let it be the first firm steps in putting palliative care on a solid foundation throughout this country. Accordingly, I will be opposing my noble friend's Bill and supporting the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew.

2.47 pm

Lord Desai: My Lords, we have not seen so many Bishops here since the debate on Sunday trading. Obviously, death is the business of the Church and it does not want it to be hastened. Religion relies on fear and the religious love suffering. I am an atheist and I have no fear, certainly no fear of God or the afterlife. I value my life, but I value it for the pleasure it gives me, and as soon as I cannot derive any pleasure, I want to be rid of it. I have always liked the Bill because it gives me autonomy. The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of St Albans said that autonomy is one of the dangerous diseases that are completely contrary to human nature. Well, that may be in the Church of England, but the rest of us who are not Christians, Muslims or Jews have a mind of our own and therefore we like personal autonomy. I cherish my personal autonomy, and if I were to lose it to some religious dogma, I would be very sorry indeed.

The conservative argument has a constant structure whether applied to House of Lords reform, the Speakership of your Lordships' House or assisted dying. The first element is the slippery slope: "You do this, and the next thing you know, you will all be killed whether you like it or not". The second element is adverse consequences, to which the noble Viscount, Lord Tenby, has just referred: "Whatever we do, what happens will be contrary to what we intend or an exaggerated version of it". Those who do not like change always say it, regardless. I should not say "Thank God" but thank somebody or other, thank the random numbers, change happens. As the noble Earl, Lord Arran, said, his father had to introduce a Bill on homosexuality reform four times. Eventually, it happened.

This happens to be the birthday of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe. Normally I would congratulate him, but I hope he lives long enough to introduce this Bill again and again, until we get what we want. We shall fight and we shall fight on.

2.50 pm


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page