Assisted Dying debate: Personal speeches on 'right to die' move a full House of Lords that is left divided and undecided

Baroness Campbell’s intervention was far from alone in being deeply personal

Oliver Wright@oliver_wright
Saturday 19 July 2014 15:00
Supporters of Dignity in Dying and Not Dead Yet outside the House of Lords yesterday
Supporters of Dignity in Dying and Not Dead Yet outside the House of Lords yesterday

As she spoke, sitting in an electric wheelchair, with a ventilator to help her breathe, Baroness Campbell’s voice quivered with emotion.

“I have a very important interest to declare,” she told the uncharacteristically full House of Lords chamber. “This Bill is about me. I did not ask for it and I do not want it but it is about me nevertheless.”

Uniquely among the 120 or so peers who spoke in the assisted-dying debate today, Baroness Campbell knows what it is like to live a life under the cloud of your own mortality. Born with degenerative spinal muscular atrophy, she has spent her life championing the rights of the disabled to live normal lives – and not, as she made very clear, to die prematurely.

“Before anyone disputes the Bill is about me, imagine it is already law and that I asked for assistance to die. Do you imagine I would be refused? This Bill offers no comfort to me. It frightens me because in periods of greatest difficulty I know I might be tempted to use it. It only adds to the burdens and challenges life holds for me.”

Baroness Campbell’s intervention was far from alone in being deeply personal. It is crude to say this but, for many of those who spoke today, dying is perhaps more on their minds than it once was.

All along the burgundy benches were men and women with grey or greying hair and important and valuable things to contribute to the debate.

Saying that he also wanted to “declare an interest”, the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Avebury described how he had been diagnosed with a rare form of blood cancer that could not be treated in people of his age and could lead to an agonising death.

“These are unattractive prospects to look forward to in the last weeks of my life,” he said. “In agreeing to this [Bill] your Lordships would give the tens of thousands of people diagnosed with conditions that may similarly lead to weeks of torture before they die the means of escape from that unnecessary fate.”

But Lord Tebbit, whose wife was left paralysed by the IRA bombing in Brighton in 1984, disagreed.

“This Bill would provide a route to great pressure on the elderly, the sick and the disabled to do the decent thing and cease to be a burden on others,” he said. “Those who care for such people are all too familiar with the moments of black despair that prompt those words, ‘I would be better dead, so that you could get on with your life’.”

“This Bill will be a breeding ground for vultures, individual and corporate. It creates too much financial incentive for the taking of life.”

Views on the former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill appeared to be split almost 50/50 among those who asked to speak.

The Bill, if eventually passed by Parliament, would create a “limited and safeguarded” change in the law to allow doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to terminally ill patients judged to have less than six months to live.

Summing up the official view of the Church of England, John Sentamu, the Archbishop of York, said the Bill was about asserting a philosophy that ending one’s life in circumstances of distress was a human freedom. “That it cannot be,” he argued.

“Human freedom is won only by becoming reconciled with the need to die. Dying well is the positive achievement of a task that belongs with our humanity. It is unlike all other tasks given to us in life, but it expresses the value that we set on life as no other approach to death can do.”

But the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey of Clifton disagreed and told the House of Lords that his views had changed: “When suffering is so great, when patients know they are at the end of life, make repeated pleas to die, it seems a denial of loving compassion which is the hallmark of Christianity to refuse to allow them to fulfil their own clearly stated request – after a proper process of safeguards .... That is what I would want.”

From a different perspective, Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, once head of the Royal Society of Medicine, said she did not believe it was right to license doctors to “supply lethal drugs to some of their patients”.

“I have seen the strongest people, including politicians and senior doctors, be the most vulnerable when facing dying – vulnerable to coercive influence and vulnerable to their fears,” she said. “The role of my profession is to address those fears and to support those people, not to encourage them, even silently, to believe that they should foreshorten their lives.”

But on the other side of the debate the Earl of Glasgow said those who opposed the Bill had misrepresented it.

“It applies only to those who are already terminally ill yet still in sound mind who want, as we all surely do, some control or say in the manner of their own death,” he said. “The Bill is not pressuring, encouraging or inviting anybody to die. It is giving them a choice that they do not have at present.”

But crossbencher Baroness Neuberger, who chaired a review into the highly controversial Liverpool Care Pathway – which was meant to manage end-of-life treatment, but sparked claims that some patients were dying unnecessarily – told peers: “The Liverpool Care Pathway review and my pastoral experience have taught me to be very careful indeed about the involvement of healthcare professionals in this matter.

"And I would prefer to see an examining magistrate or a High Court judge as the person who scrutinises whether a person is of sound mind and clear that they want to do it and is not being pressurised by relatives or others.”

The Bill was introduced following a Supreme Court ruling in June that rejected an argument that a ban on doctors helping patients to end their lives was incompatible with Human Rights legislation.

But, significantly, the judges ruled that they did have the “constitutional authority” to intervene in the debate – if Parliament did not make its intentions clear on the matter.The Supreme Court president, Lord Neuberger, said in the judgment: “Parliament now has the opportunity to address the issue of whether section 2 [of the Suicide Act] should be relaxed or modified, and if so how, in the knowledge that, if it is not satisfactorily addressed there is a real prospect that a further, and successful, application for a declaration of incompatibility (with Human Rights Law) may be made.”

Many speakers made reference to this – and it was the main reason those opposed to the Bill did not push it to a vote on second reading. Instead it will go to a House of Lords committee in the autumn. If it passes that stage it will move to the Commons but is unlikely to be voted on this side of a general election. But with the very real possibility that unless Parliament decides the issue then courts will, it is likely to return to the burgundy and green benches again.

As the Bill’s sponsor, Lord Falconer, put it: “The courts have said repeatedly that the current law does not work and have urged Parliament to construct a workable law. There is a common goal, whichever side of the debate you are on.”

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