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Only a few days ago, my wife and I were in the excellent Joseph Weld Hospice in Dorchester with a friend who suffers from MND. She cannot speak and can now barely write the words that she can nevertheless articulate clearly in her mind. Even with the highest forms of palliative care, such patients are clinging to a steadily declining quality of life. It is the medial profession's very expertise in prolonging life that gives rise to the feelings that many of us are expressing today. I have been comforted, as these patients must have been, by the knowledge that doctors continue to exercise discreet powers in the administration of drugs, albeit in a legal vacuum. It is tempting to support the status quo, even though as medicine advances the pressure on doctors to stretch their ethical standards must sometimes be intolerable.
"The current law causes . . . unnecessary suffering . . . Among my own acquaintances I have personally known it to lead to amateurish and unnecessary suicides that went tragically wrong. I hear that this is not uncommon. A change in the law has become essential".
The recent experience of Dr Anne Turner and the loyalty of her family speaking on the radio moved me to look at the Bill more carefully and to consider my noble friend's more targeted approach, because I believe that it will be used to relieve only a minority of cases of exceptional or "unrelievable" suffering, in the word used by the Select Committee. Assistance would be provided only where the person concerned was fully competent to make a decision.
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It is surely disingenuous and counter-productive of critics of the Bill, including many in the Churches, to speak of killers and murderers, impugning the genuine humanitarian motives of those who wish to relieve suffering. By using such language, they alienate those of a reforming tendency who still occupy the middle ground. Certainty is the prerogative of those, including many from the Catholic tradition, who have turned their face away from change or any attempt to look forward and learn from empirical experience.
As the noble Baroness, Lady Richardson, stated well, many Christians seek security in the absolute sanctity of life, as laid down in the law of Moses. They ignore or forget that Christianity also embraces and celebrates death. Others, not necessarily humanist or agnostic, want to anticipate or even proclaim death as the completion of life. They do not need to cling to thin-spun life until the blind fury comes. They recognise death's approach before it has the power to shock, and they want to cope with it accordingly in the most peaceful way possible. Surely that falls well within the present ethical norms of palliative care, although some advocates will not let you think so.
Withholding life-prolonging treatment and assisted suicide coincide for me on the ethical compass. Here, I support the comments of Dr Evan Harris as cited by the Select Committee. Therefore, although fully recognising the growing skills in palliative care, about which much has been said, I believe that the Bill is both endorsing the status quo and giving it the force of law. Of course, there will be a legal tangle because of the potential for abuse. Some doctors and nurses will always see it as the enemy of Hippocrates. I hope that the web of potential amendments does not become an excuse for hypocrisy or inaction, which would prolong the agony of many patients deserving more imaginative care and co-operative doctors, who at present act without legal authority.
Lord Clinton-Davis: My Lords, many have spoken in this debatenot least the noble Earl, Lord Sandwichto great effect about their experiences with the dying and the ageing sick. But there is no monopoly of caring. I can see no reason why palliative care or the work of the hospices should cease if the Bill were to become law.
One of the most significant matters that we have to decide today is the amendment to the substantive Motion. I will focus on that. It would be unwise in the extreme if further debate about the merits or otherwise of the Bill were to be curtailed. Although I accept that the Bill will not pass in this Session, there is so much to consider in depth, which no one has so far has done. Are the safeguards included in the Bill adequate? Do they need strengthening? Is the Bill capable of being improved? Are the cooling-off periods right? I have mentioned only some matters; there are many others.
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One thing is abundantly plain. Many people on both sides of the argument hold sincere views. No one can be untouched by indignity in death. It has been argued that if the Bill is given a Second Reading, that would confer the approval of the House on the principle underlying the Bill. With respect, I believe that that is wholly untrue and collides with reality. This House has never taken that restrictive view, at least in the recent past.
That comes down to the argument that the Bill of the noble Lord, Lord Joffe, should be strangled at birth. I find that wholly offensive. I contend that that the Bill should be considered in detail. Like my noble friend Lady Hayman and the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, I come to the conclusion that there is a great deal to be considered. Although the Bill will not pass in this Session, the further consideration to which I have referred will never be a waste of time.
If the Bill's proponents are then unable satisfactorily to answer the points made by its many opponents, it will founderand deservedly so. What is so wrong with that? We ought therefore to give further consideration to the Bill's proposals, and improve it. This House has proved that it is remarkably successful in doing that.
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, there is an old saying that if you want to get the right answer, you must first understand the question. I am not at all sure that we all do. The question before us is not whether we have compassion for people who are suffering. Of course we do; we all do. We would be less than human if we did not. The Bill is about whether we should change the law to help people to kill themselves. We make laws in this country to ensure that certain things that might happen if society were to be left to its own devices do not actually happen. The law that forbids intentional killing is one such law. No law can be designed to meet every individual's needs. This means that before we change a law, we must know that its existence causes serious harm to a significant number of people.
The Select Committee's report clearly states in plain language that the demand for a change in the law is coming from a small minority of people who are suffering not because of the physical pain of terminal illness, but because they cannot come to terms with being terminally ill. This is not a medical problem; it is intrinsic to their personality. Much as I sympathise with the plight of such people, we live and interact in society. This is one of the cases where you cannot have just what you want, because it affects others. If there is medical suffering and we can treat itwe can do so with palliative care, as we have heard throughout the afternoonwe should treat it. But if the sufferer asks instead for assisted suicide because of a particular character trait, we would be wrong to change the law to accommodate him or her.
The Bill is tearing our society apart. Many disabled people are frightened of the Bill, as we have heard from the noble Baronesses, Lady Chapman and
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Lady Masham. That is why we should be very careful about taking it any further. I have been disappointed that the British Humanist Association should mount such a virulent attack on religious bodies. I am a secularist, but I too oppose the Bill, as do the vast majority of medical professionals, who after all will have to make the Bill work. They are the people, along with the disabled, who are very much at risk.
The noble Lord, Lord Desai, said that he wanted autonomy in death. I quite understand that but, as I see it, he might have his own autonomy, but the danger is that others would lose theirs. This is one of the great problems that people like me and others have with the Bill.
Finally, those who hold up public opinion as being in favour of the Bill are treading on very dangerous ground. Public opinion is very fickle indeed. It can also be very extreme. As we have already heard, many people want a return to the death penalty. Probably about 80 per cent want a return to flogging and the cane in schools. Indeed, probably a great majority of the population want to bring in castration for rapists. So we must be very careful when we claim public opinion in our favour. The Bill is difficult and dangerous. I oppose it, and I will support the amendment.
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