A coalition of cross-party peers has moved to water down proposed legislation that would let the terminally ill request and receive help to end their lives.
The Assisted Dying Bill, proposed by former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer, has divided the House of Lords and is scheduled for its latest debate on Friday. The Bill has made it further through Parliament than many politicians expected. The Private Member's Bill, not yet backed by any political parties, would let people request assistance in killing themselves if their terminal illness means they are likely to have no more than six months left to live. But critics are worried that this could be abused or have unintended consequences, such as sick people, fearing they are a burden on their families, requesting death even though they want to live.
Liberal Democrat Lord Carlile, Labour's Lord Darzi and crossbencher Lord Harries, have submitted an amendment which would see the six-month life expectancy limit reduced to three months. Lord Carlile opposes assisted dying "philosophically", as he does not believe anyone should be given the right to kill another person, but wanted to alter this aspect of the Bill in case assisted dying ever becomes law.
"The amendment is intended to tighten [issues surrounding] terminal illness," said Lord Carlile. "The nearer to death you are the less likely it [the prognosis] will be wrong."
Lord Falconer said this weekend that only granting people the right to assisted dying with three months or less to live would mean that in many cases it could be too late for them. They might already be in such pain that there would no longer be many benefits to choosing the timing of their own death.
"It's a big issue, whether six months is too short or too long," said Lord Falconer. "You've got to give people long enough to make their choices. I will be saying let's start with six months: opponents are trying to ambush the Bill. The time has come for change."
Even if the Bill gets through the Lords this week, there is insufficient time before the election to get it debated and passed in the House of Commons. Lord Falconer is hoping to "carry over" the Bill to the next Parliament, no matter which party or parties are in government, so that it does not have to be re-introduced from scratch.
As it is a Private Member's rather than a government Bill, this would be an unusual move, but Lord Falconer is contacting senior Whips in major parties to see if they will consent to the idea.
One peer who is pushing hard for the Bill to become law early in the next Parliament is Lord Avebury, the LibDem who is widely considered to have achieved the most stunning by-election victory of the 20th century when he took Orpington in 1962. Overturning a huge Conservative majority, the win signalled a revival of a Liberal Party that had been in the doldrums for decades.
The 86-year-old is terminally ill with a rare bone-marrow condition, myelofibrosis, and has calculated that he has about 19 months left to live.
"I honestly can't understand why anybody would oppose this Bill," said Lord Avebury. "It seems to me obvious that a person should have control over his own life and that people who are trying to stop it are being very selfish about it.
"It's not obviously something that affects them as they don't need it, so to make it impossible for anybody else to take advantage of a law of this kind seems peculiarly perverse."
Lord Avebury says the Bill's opponents should look at evidence from the US state of Oregon, where assisted dying has been legal since 1997. "No one has alleged that greedy relatives have tried to persuade someone to take advantage of the law so as to collect the money," he argued.
Supportive peers would like to see their parties make manifesto commitments to giving the Bill plenty of Parliamentary time for debate after the election. The Earl of Arran, a Conservative, said he would "love it" if this appeared in any party manifesto, while fellow Tory Baroness Wheatcroft argues that "the body of [public] opinion is moving more and more in favour" of assisted suicide.
The party leaders, who have left assisted suicide as a free vote and therefore a matter of conscience for their Parliamentarians, are also under pressure from their MPs to consider whether the Bill should become law. Norman Lamb, the Health minister who has been tipped as a future leader of the LibDems, said: "I hope that our party, if it is in government, helps to facilitate the debate going forward to the next Parliament."
Tory MP Sir Richard Ottaway said that "a serious assault" on getting assisted dying on to the statute books was needed.