In a 7-hour-long debate in the House of Lords, over 60 peers have spoken out against assisted dying.
During the heated debate of Baroness Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill on Friday 22 October, over 140 peers were due to speak at the second reading.
The Assisted Dying Bill is a private member’s bill which aims to legalise physician-assisted suicide for patients with a terminal illness who supposedly have six months or less to live. The bill has moved forward without a vote, which is standard procedure in the House of Lords at a second reading. If it passes the committee stage, it will move forward for a third reading in the House of Lords, where it would be put forward for a vote. However, it is unlikely to go through the House of Commons, as the bill is not supported by the government and is not expected to be given sufficient time to progress.
Thank you to everyone who wrote to a peer in the House of Lords, asking them to oppose this bill.
You can read the full transcript of the debate on Hansard. Or read below for some of the highlights of the debate.
In the run-up to the debate, the bill attracted widespread opposition from both parliamentarians and doctors alike, worried that the bill would take away important safeguards for the sick and vulnerable.
Among them, during the debate, was Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, who said:
“Sadly, I believe this Bill to be unsafe. As a curate and parish priest, I spent time with the dying, the sick and the bereaved. I still do. All of us have personal experience; I have as well. We know that the sad truth is that not all people are perfect, not all families are happy, not everyone is kind and compassionate. No amount of safeguards can perfect the human heart. No amount of regulation can make a relative kinder or a doctor infallible. No amount of reassurance can make a vulnerable or disabled person feel equally safe and equally valued if the law is changed in this way.
“All of us here are united in wanting compassion and dignity for those coming to the end of their lives, but it does not serve compassion if, by granting the wishes of one closest to me, I expose others to danger, and it does not serve dignity if, in granting the wishes of one closest to me, I devalue the status and safety of others. I hope your Lordships will reflect and, while recognising the good intentions we all share, resist the change the Bill seeks to make.”
Similarly, Baroness Smith of Newnham was also concerned about the safety of the bill:
“Everybody in your Lordships’ House is concerned about dignity in dying; it is quite wrong to suggest that only those who support assisted suicide might be concerned about dignity. We all are, but it is the duty of your Lordships’ House, as the right reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury made clear at an early stage in the debate, to legislate for the most vulnerable—for everybody. We need to put in place only legislation that will ensure safety and will not lead to some people being made more vulnerable and potentially subject to abuse.
“… I know that this Bill is not about euthanasia—it is about assisted suicide—but how can we be assured that taking a decision on this legislation would not then lead to incremental views about extending the legislation again and again?
“… This is a dangerous Bill, which we should not be passing. I shall not be calling a vote on it, but I very much hope that the Bill does not pass into legislation.”
Better palliative care needed
Several peers pointed out the need for better palliative care, including Lord Sheikh:
“Human life is sacred, and we should do all we can to preserve and enhance human life in every way. It is not appropriate for a medical professional to believe that a patient’s life is no longer worth living.
“… One of my greatest concerns is that, if this Bill is passed, some patients may lose trust in their GP, especially if the doctor is offering assisted dying. Trust in a doctor is fundamental to our health system.
“There may be coercion on hospital clinics to provide this facility and this will impact on end-of-life care. That is totally unacceptable. Medical practitioners who object may face significant pressures from their patients, employers and colleagues. For a number of years, I have strongly supported palliative care in this country. We should redouble our efforts and invest in palliative care to improve quality of life for our loved ones. In the vast majority of cases, I am told that pain can be well controlled.
“I also have serious misgivings about the Bill’s content and the proposed safeguards. It sets out a definition of what constitutes a “terminally ill” patient. Prognosis is not an exact science. No doctor can predict when a patient will die. In fact, one leading consultant has written to me to say: ‘Doctors are poor at predicting when people will die’.”
Taking advantage of the vulnerable
Lord Curry of Kirkhale was also concerned that legalising assisted suicide could place a burden on the sick and vulnerable, forcing them to end their lives prematurely:
“My Lords, I, too, am deeply concerned about this Bill and oppose it. … I fear that this country will become a society that terminates the lives of its old people and its sick and disabled people because they fear they are being a burden to their loved ones and because of the time and the cost of their care. I have the same letter that the noble Lord, Lord Sheikh, referred to, where a doctor wrote very eloquently. I want to repeat that phrase: ‘Doctors are very poor at predicting when people will die.’”
Lord Adonis agreed:
“The problem with the Bill is that it is simply not possibly to guard adequately against the abuse of the very elderly and the very ill by greedy and manipulative relations and friends. The idea that brief consultations with two doctors are adequate is simply not credible. I accept that it does extend autonomy—autonomy which I might personally value—to those of sound mind who are unpressurised about ending their life. Of course I accept that, which is why this is such a desperately difficult issue. But the supreme duty of the state and the community is to protect the vulnerable and their human rights. There is no greater human right than the right to life. Therefore, very reluctantly, I come to the conclusion that this Bill—or indeed any Bill seeking to achieve this objective—is not one to which Parliament should give assent.”
‘No choice’ to die
Similarly, Baroness Campbell of Surbiton raised the issue of choice, asking whether this bill really supported the autonomy of those who are sick and dying:
“A person will choose assisted suicide only if they feel they have no other choice and it is better to die than carry on living. But this Bill does not give them a real choice; it does not guarantee universal palliative care, offer adequate support to those with progressive conditions, or remove the fear of being a burden. All are essential to support a pain-free and dignified end of life, but we all know that they are in very short supply. Rather, the Bill confirms their disempowered status and lack of choice. No one should feel that they would be better off dead. No one should have to witness a loved one in intolerable distress or pain, as so many of us have experienced—and I count myself among that number. It does not have to be like that. We must ensure that everyone at the end of life has a true choice before they consider the ultimate step of assisted suicide. Until that happens, I oppose this Bill.”
Assisted suicide a ‘dangerous masquerade’
Lord Morrow pointed out that legalising assisted suicide is not really about being ‘compassionate’, but is far more harmful than it purports to be:
“It is crucial that we examine the assertion that changing the law to allow a medical professional to assist another’s suicide without sanction fits with our general ethos of care. We would not fathom validating or facilitating a mentally distressed person’s desire for suicide to minimise their anguish, however traumatic, and it would be deeply unethical and sinister to suggest assisted suicide to a disabled person struggling with the burden of their condition. What makes it legitimate to introduce it as an option because a doctor makes a judgment that an individual has approximately six months to live?
“To present any form of medical suicide as complementary to a compassionate society is a dangerous masquerade and one that threatens to undermine the fundamental ethic at our nation’s core. The Bill would legitimise the involvement of doctors—society’s preservers of life—in the procurement of death. Legalising assisted suicide is the wrong answer to the right question: how do we best care for and support vulnerable people nearing the end of their life?
“The Bill is a dangerously misguided piece of legislation which I hope your Lordships’ House will reject.”
Lord McColl also pointed out that assisted suicide is not really about giving greater autonomy to the sick and dying:
“We hear a lot about the right to commit suicide and autonomy, but let us be clear: the Bill is not about that. It is about the right to tell someone else—a doctor or a dispensing pharmacist—to end a patient’s life. That is not about autonomy. It turns us as doctors into takers of life, and that is not what we were called to do. “Care” and “kill” are not interchangeable words. We must ensure that the great dam that holds back the flood of unintended consequences is kept in good repair.”
Lord Alton of Liverpool raised the point that although the issue of assisted dying has been repeatedly raised in the two houses over the years, there are still many unanswered questions over how it would work in practice, particularly in regards to safeguarding the vulnerable:
“Notwithstanding the good intentions of those who produce these recurring Bills, the same unanswered questions about the risks to vulnerable people, the compromising of medical ethics, the danger of incrementalism, the impact on the family courts and the lack of safeguards remain, and they remain unanswered. The Bill before the House does little to address the serious issues raised in the Mackay report. In truth, what are described as safeguards are simply a wish list of what its sponsors hope will happen in an ideal world, but, as we have heard from so many noble Lords, we do not live in an ideal world. Some seem to think that this is just a detail that can be covered in codes of practice but, in a Bill dealing with matters of life and death, safety is a key issue of principle and not a detail. It would be profoundly irresponsible to enact legislation without knowing how many putative safeguards might work. Asking us to do otherwise is like asking Parliament to sign a blank cheque.”
Learning from other countries
Several peers also pointed out the flaws in other countries where euthanasia and assisted suicide is legal, such as in Canada, Belgium, the Netherlands, and in the State of Oregon, USA. Lord Clement-Jones commented:
“My Lords, it is now over 15 years since I last spoke at the Second Reading of an assisted dying Bill. However, I regret that I am no more persuaded by the eloquent and powerful arguments put for this Bill than I was at the time for that of Lord Joffe.
“… When we debated Lord Joffe’s Bill, it could be argued that the Netherlands and Oregon had had their teething problems but that they demonstrated the safety and viability of assisted suicide legislation. After the passage of years, that assertion has been punctured, as the noble Viscount, Lord Bridgeman, demonstrated. On the contrary, we can now see the real flaws in their systems and that of Canada, variously a lack of supervision, doctor shopping, a great increase in assisted deaths, greatly widened eligibility from the initial scope, and impact on investment in palliative care and charitable hospice activity. I am firmly on the side in this debate of the many people who have written so cogently and movingly in opposition to this Bill. I will vote to defeat it if given the opportunity.”
A slippery slope
Several peers raised the question that this bill could lead to legislating on suicide more widely, particularly for younger people. Baroness Hooper commented:
“Seriously, I understand this concentration on older people at the end of their natural lives and on the pain and suffering they may have to endure, but my concern is that giving a certain category of people the right to end their lives legally could influence others of other generations, whatever the presumed safeguards that I fully appreciate the noble Baroness, Lady Meacher, has tried to build into the Bill. To put it simply, we are all aware, I am sure, of the increasing number of young people—especially young men, it seems—who are committing suicide. This Bill, however unintentionally, could give them a feeling of legitimacy and justification in taking their young lives for reasons that may be imagined. This, in my opinion, would be an unintended consequence too far. For this reason, and for the many reasons advanced by others, perhaps encapsulated best, for me, in the early stages of the debate by the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury, I oppose the Bill.”
Bishops speak out
Some of the Bishops in the House of Lords thankfully spoke out against the bill. Former Archbishop of York, Lord Sentamu, put it to the House:
“Any community, society, institution or legislature that forgets its memory becomes senile. Fifty-four years ago, in 1967, Dame Cicely Saunders founded St Christopher’s Hospice, the first hospice linking expert pain and symptom control, compassionate care, teaching and clinical research. The model is now established worldwide, resulting in the amazing advances in and increased diffusion of palliative care, in which of course Christian practitioners who value human life were pioneers. Frankly, why is this framework for thinking about the clinical management of death regarded as outdated, although some still think it is both/and? We ought to be following the line of approach that has proved itself so successful not only in dealing with pain but in helping the dying achieve peace, which is pastorally so indispensable. This could, no doubt, be extended with more pain research and funding, so that these hospices are no longer depending just on private individuals but become part of our caring for the dying.”
The Bishop of Chichester also supported a greater investment in palliative care:
“The sanctity of life is central to Christian faith. It is also a view held with honour and conviction by people of other faiths, as we have heard. The Church’s sense of responsibility for all people stems from this conviction—responsibility especially for the vulnerable when they face death too often alone, but, at the moment, with the fundamental bulwark of protection in the law.
“… Many contributors have raised significant doubts about the level of trust in the capacity of the judiciary and the medical profession to meet the extraordinary demands of disadvantaged communities when terminal illness and incapacity face them. The call from the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, and others for urgent and sustained investment in palliative care would be a positive and worthy outcome to this important debate on a Bill whose humane intentions I respect profoundly but which, I believe, would lead to unintended consequences and which we should not let pass.”
Meanwhile, the Bishop of Carlisle raised the question of whether the public really do support assisted dying:
“We have been informed of a shift in public opinion on this issue but I have also been impressed recently by evidence suggesting that the more that people generally know and understand about assisted dying, the less they tend to support it. Opinion polls do not always reflect informed discussion. I believe that allowing death and alleviating suffering are very different from the assisted dying that we are considering today.”
Was Jesus’ death assisted?
Sadly, however, not all Christians in the House of Lords were united on the issue.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, commented:
“Experiences in Oregon and Canada have been referred to, in some cases disapprovingly. I am in touch with the Episcopal Diocese of Oregon and the Ecclesiastical Province of Canada. In both places, things are going pretty well. Canada is in transition. Listen to Sallie Bowman, a director of spiritual care in Oregon:
“‘The bar stays pretty high for those wishing to pursue death with dignity … palliative care has actually expanded greatly here.’
“In conclusion, assisted dying is only for those who show a clear-minded and persistent resolution to seek it. It is within the capabilities of medical science to end intolerable suffering peacefully and it is an act of great generosity, kindness and human love to help when it is the will of the only person who matters, the sufferer herself.”
Lord Vinson, who described himself as a Christian put it to the House:
“I very much recognise the sincerity of those who believe deeply in the sanctity of life. I am a Christian myself, but I remind them that, when on the cross, Christ was put out of his agony by a kindly Roman centurion, who pierced his side with a sword. His death was assisted.”
Thankfully, this point was later refuted by a number of peers. Lord Curry commented:
“I challenge the interpretation of theology given by the noble Lord, Lord Vinson. Christ’s death was not assisted. He voluntarily offered up his life and it was the purpose for which he came.”
Similarly, the Bishop of Durham corrected Lord Vinson’s scriptural error:
“If I may, I have a reminder for the noble Lord, Lord Vinson:
‘But when they came to Jesus and found that he was already dead, they did not break his legs’—and then his side was pierced.”
You can use our booklet on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide for more information and find many more resources on our End of Life page.