A parliamentary bill to legalise assisted dying was debated for nearly ten hours in the House of Lords on Friday but ended without division. Peers, who were evenly split on whether to back a change in the law, have sent the bill through to its next stage in parliament for further debate.
Observers say the bill is unlikely to make it into law because of a lack of time, but British Prime Minister David Cameron, while “unconvinced” of the arguments, has said he is open to a similar debate in the House of Commons.
Below are the speeches made by officers of the Catholic Union of Great Britain during the debate.
The complete debate from Hansard can be found here.
Lord Brennan (President of the Catholic Union) My Lords, to make it lawful for doctors to assist people to commit suicide is a profound step. This morning’s editorial in theGuardian said that it would change the moral landscape of our nation. A Bill that proposes this therefore demands, whether you are for it or not, rigorous examination. If one applies that examination at this early stage, the Bill can be seen to be dangerous in its effect. First, it favours the few invulnerable against the many vulnerable, who may be pressured into it by fears of being a burden, either through physical dependency or financial cost or both. I use those adjectives, “invulnerable” and “vulnerable”, following Lord Sumption, one of the judges in the recent case. He used them in counterpoint to explain the difference between the strong and clear-minded and the weak, depressed, ill and confused. At paragraph 228 of his judgment, in referring to the risk to the vulnerable, he said: “There is a good deal of evidence that this problem exists, that it is significant, and that it is aggravated by negative modern attitudes to old age and sickness-related disability”. The problem will surely get worse. Over the next 25 years, people of 60 and above will become 50% of the population of the nation, presently estimated to take up 60% of the National Health Service’s costs. Can it be doubted that the problem that Lord Sumption identified is not going to get worse? Of course it is, both in the individual case and in society, where the cost of living as an old or sick person will be balanced against the treatments of death under these arrangements. We must be realistic. Limited today, it will be extended soon enough if necessary. Secondly, there is a danger to the medical profession. This Bill dismantles the Hippocratic oath by creating two kinds of doctor: those who will not help you to kill yourself and those who will. I cannot imagine more diametrically opposed medical standards than those. How is it to be resolved within the profession? How can it help public confidence in doctors and nurses? Thirdly, the Bill is limited in its effect, but the prospect of litigation and further legislation is obvious. The more we are told about autonomy and choice, the more a group of litigants will say to the court, “I want to exercise my autonomy and my choice. Why is it restricted to the terminally ill? Why six months? Why the discrimination between those types of cases and me? Look at the Equality Act”—et cetera, et cetera. It will come. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, has not told us, nor has any of his supporters thus far, what they will do in the future if this Bill is passed. Is this a first step or the last step? Fourthly and finally, there is a danger to Parliament. If one doubts that it is as serious as I have suggested, look at Clauses 8 and 9. The Bill states that execution, oversight and regulation are given by us to the Executive to devise and implement without reference to Parliament. I find that astonishing. I accept the misery that can come with illness and the time near to death, but in the 21st century, with all the technology and medical advances that we have, are we driven to the conclusion, in the words of one of the royal colleges, that it is best to be compassionate by eliminating suffering through elimination of the sufferer? Surely we can do better than that. Legislating for hard cases nearly always produces bad law. In the rigour that we apply to this Bill, let us make sure that we do not make that mistake again.
Lord Alton of Liverpool (Vice-president of the Catholic Union): My Lords, since the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, laid the Bill before your Lordships’ House, I have argued that it should be given a proper, considered appraisal in Committee, and nothing that has happened in today’s debate has changed my view about that. This has been a thoughtful and at times very moving debate, on all sides of the argument. However, I express some surprise that the Bill was not laid first before the elected House. After all, it is not as if we have not given this issue any previous consideration. When the House last asked the question, “Is it possible to allow assisted suicide for a determined few, without putting much larger numbers of others at risk?”, it concluded that it is not. It did so after exhaustive deliberation. The Select Committee, which was chaired with such distinction by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay of Clashfern, covered some 246Hansard columns, two volumes of 800 pages, asked 2,460 questions, considered 14,000 letters, and took evidence in four jurisdictions. Since then, the principles involved and the challenges we face have not changed, and there is no consensus and no settled view, as the debate in your Lordships’ House today has demonstrated. That is reflected in society at large. Consider just two editorials that appeared at different ends of the spectrum in this morning’s newspapers. The Guardian newspaper said that the Bill, “would create a new moral landscape. It is also, potentially, open to abuse”. It concluded: “Reshaping the moral landscape is no alternative to cherishing life and the living”. The Daily Telegraph said: “The more assisted dying is discussed, the more its risks will become apparent”. That point was made very well by the noble Lord, Lord Wills, a few moments ago. Another reason why the Bill should go into Committee is that the fear that those remarks underline was revealed in a poll referred to earlier on, published only yesterday by ComRes. Yes; it shows that support for assisted suicide has been at 73%, but as soon as the question is asked, “Would you support it if it jeopardised public safety?” that falls to 43%, which, of course, means that it is entirely evenly matched on both sides. As we know, the questions that are asked in those polls are the issue. Prudential judgment is required by Parliament. After all, as a young Member of the House of Commons I was constantly told that I ought to support on the basis of polling evidence legislation against immigrants, to leave the European Union, and to reintroduce capital punishment, none of which I supported, because prudential judgment is more important than polls. Public safety and incrementalism are my main reasons for opposing this Bill. Great play has been made today by many speakers about choice and autonomy. I thought that the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, put it incredibly well in her speech. How much autonomy is there in this Bill? I think that the word “assisted” in the title is the key. Who will be required to do the assisting? It will be doctors, of course, and very few want to do it. One of my sons is training to be a medic, and he tells me that he is deeply concerned about this Bill because of the proposals to change the nature of the healer and defender into the destroyer of life. That is why the British Medical Association, the Royal Colleges, the British Geriatric Society, the hospices and 95% of palliative medicine specialists oppose a change in the law. We had a reference earlier from my noble friend Lady Grey-Thompson to Professor Theo Boer from the Netherlands. He said that he now regrets that on the basis of the argument for greater autonomy and freedom he supported changes in the law there. He said: “I used to be a supporter of the Dutch law. But now, with 12 years of experience, I take a very different view … Pressure on doctors to conform to patients’—or in some cases relatives’—wishes can be intense Professor Boer admitted he was, “wrong—terribly wrong, in fact”, to have believed that regulated euthanasia would work. One reason why he has changed his mind is because of the inevitability of incrementalism. Euthanasia, he says, is, “on the way to becoming a default mode of dying for cancer patients”. Since 2008, assisted deaths there have increased by about 15% every year, maybe reaching a record of 6,000 a year. What of incrementalism here? The 2011 commission of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, said that assisted dying should not be offered to disabled people who are not terminally ill, “at this point in time”. At what point in time will it be right to offer to end the lives of people with disabilities? How long will it be before it becomes expected? Only today the Secretary of State for Health, the right honourable Jeremy Hunt, said that changing the law would “devalue” the lives of people living with permanent disabilities. And what of public safety? The current law, unlike the Bill, provides safeguards and has rarely had to be invoked. Willy Loman, the central character in Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman”, takes his own life, and the playwright’s plea is that we pay attention, and that, “he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him”. I had an uncle who fought in the last war and, as a result, became deaf. He was a gunner. In a state of great depression—a point referred to by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Cathain, earlier—he took his own life. The suicide of people, assisted or otherwise, affects everyone. We should pay attention to the terrible things that mental illness and depression involve and respond with tender compassion and strong laws to deter exploitation, with laws that safeguard vulnerable people. My noble friend Lady Campbell of Surbiton said that this would become a runaway train, and we should pay attention.