Liberal Democrat conference: Minister admits ‘risks’ with assisted suicide law


The new Liberal Democrat care services minister has admitted he is not convinced that the necessary safeguards can be found that would allow assisted suicide to be legalised, despite backing calls for new laws.

Norman Lamb alarmed many anti-euthanasia campaigners when he told a journalist shortly after his appointment earlier this month that he was in favour of legalising assisted suicide.

But Lamb has now told Disability News Service (DNS) that he accepts there is a possibility that such a law would not be able to frame safeguards that would provide the necessary protection to sick, disabled, and older people.

His comments came at his party’s annual conference in Brighton, only an hour after his party voted heavily in favour of calling on Liberal Democrat ministers to “press for a government bill” to legalise assisted suicide.

When DNS asked Lamb whether the necessary safeguards could ever be devised, he stressed that any law would need to enforce a “period of reflection” once a person had asked for an assisted suicide, but added: “Ultimately I cannot accept the argument that because there are risks, that person has no rights.”

DNS suggested a scenario in which assisted suicide had been legalised, and a woman with a progressive, life-limiting condition – and a debt-ridden daughter who cared for her – who enjoyed her life but knew that if she died, her only child’s financial problems would be solved, was seeking an assisted suicide.

DNS asked how the government could introduce sufficient safeguards to prevent a disabled person in such a situation from being given permission to be helped to die.

Lamb, who said he had previously been opposed to legalising assisted suicide, said: “I believe that person does have rights. I would simply want to contemplate further how you would protect against this risk, which I accept is a risk.”

He made it clear that he had “reached no conclusion” on whether such safeguards could be found, and said: “That person has rights. I would want to reflect on how you achieve those safeguards.”

Robert Adamson, chair of the Liberal Democrat Disability Association – but speaking in a personal capacity – who voted against the assisted suicide motion, said he was concerned that legalisation would “crack open the door that abusers could go through”.

He said it would open up the possibility of “abuse of the system”, while some people could be pressured by their families to take the assisted suicide option.

Adamson said many “well-meaning people who live in comfortable relationships” did not understand that there were “a few, a very few, quite nasty people out there in society” who could abuse such a law.

He also said that – if assisted suicide had been legal 15 years ago – he “might have made the decision to go for it” because he was deeply depressed at the time at the progress of his impairment – he has multiple sclerosis (ms) – and had just lost his first wife, who also had ms.

Today, his perspective has changed dramatically. “Now, 15 years on, I have a really fulfilling life. I have discovered this marvellous political hobby and I have got married again.”

But Shana Pezaro, another disabled Liberal Democrat, who also has ms, insisted that the choice of an assisted suicide must be available.

She told DNS: “I would only want this to happen if there was a very, very tight judicial process that you would have to go through.

“They need to be absolutely convinced that the person genuinely wants to end their life, that life has become something that is unliveable, and that they have made that personal choice to end it.”

She added: “I wouldn’t want this to be an easy choice. However, I would want that choice to be there.

“For me personally I would take the risk having it legalised, knowing I could be that person who falls through the net.

“I would still rather have the right to die. That is more important to me than worrying I might fall through a net.”

25 September 2012