Disabled peers have spoken out to oppose – but also support – a new bill that would legalise assisted suicide for some terminally-ill people.
The House of Lords heard from 133 peers during a marathon debate, with roughly half of them appearing to back the new bill proposed by the Labour peer Lord Falconer.
The debate took place as scores of disabled people protested against the bill outside the Lords, with a much smaller number supporting it.
Three disabled peers spoke out against the bill, as well as a peer with long-term cancer, while two disabled peers told the debate that they backed legalisation.
The disabled peer Baroness [Jane] Campbell – one of the leaders of the campaign to defeat attempts at legalising assisted suicide – said the bill had become a “runaway train, and the more frightening because of that”.
She said: “The bill offers no comfort to me. It frightens me because, in periods of greatest difficulty, I know that I might be tempted to use it. It only adds to the burdens and challenges which life holds for me.”
She added: “Pain, suffering and disempowerment are treatable – I have to believe that – and they should always be treated. My long experience of progressive deterioration has taught me that there is no situation that cannot be improved.”
She said she had spent her life “developing ways to prevent people in vulnerable situations feeling powerless and burdensome”.
She added: “I am afraid that assisted dying will bring back outdated beliefs that devalue disabled and terminally-ill people, when we have tried so hard to get away from them.
“Small wonder then if some succumb to those beliefs and see premature death as the only answer.”
Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson said the bill proposes a “fundamental change in the relationship between doctors, patients and families”.
She added: “We have to recognise that not everyone’s motives are altruistic; not everyone has a caring family. People can be coerced.”
She suggested that Lord Falconer had been “reluctant” to discuss the number of people who would request an assisted suicide if his bill became law.
She said: “Why are people worried? It is because many disabled people are not terminally-ill.
“However, many terminally-ill people experience some sort of impairment and there is a great deal of confusion around that.
“There is a myth that our lives are so tragic or painful that we must want to end them. Just this week I was told, ‘You must have wanted to kill yourself many times in your life.’ No, I have not.”
She and others pointed to new research for the charity CARE by ComRes which showed that support for the bill among the general population dropped from 73 per cent to 43 per cent (with the proportion opposed rising to 43 per cent) if it “jeopardised public safety”.
Another disabled crossbench peer, Baroness Masham, said: “A few disabled people want assisted suicide, but the majority do not. They want to live.
“The bill makes them feel vulnerable. There should be adequate care so that they can live decent lives and die a peaceful death.”
She added: “The relationship that elderly disabled people and children have with their doctors should be one of trust and help; doctors should not becoming killing machines.”
The Conservative peer Lord Elton, who has had cancer since 1997, warned that the combination of the increasing cost of social care and the NHS and a “very rapidly increasing global population, impending shortages, and therefore strife over food and water” would lead to a “whole new social climate”.
This, he said, would create “increasing pressures to regard people at a specified age, which no doubt will start very high but diminish as pressures increase, as being not very public-spirited if they go on”.
But two disabled peers spoke out in favour of the bill.
Lord [Colin] Low said the bill offered a “very narrowly and precisely targeted measure aimed at assisting those who are terminally-ill to avoid further suffering by assisting them to take their own life”, and “protects anyone who does not have a terminal illness, and it will give dying adults peace of mind”.
He insisted that polls showed four-fifths of disabled people were in favour of the bill.
He said: “The argument for assisted dying is fundamentally that it gives people choice and control at the end of life.
“It is curious that the leaders of disabled people campaign for choice and control in every other aspect of life but balk at it in this one.”
And the disabled Liberal Democrat peer Baroness Brinton said she “does not feel worthless or worried because the safeguards offered in the bill are so tightly drawn that it would take major legislation to amend them”.
She said: “The bill will allow us to be honest – with ourselves, our families, our doctors and as a society.
“It will allow the dying individual the choice, should he or she wish it, and will provide law to prevent abuse by others.”
The Labour peer Baroness Symons told fellow peers how, in the early 1990s, her husband had been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia and was given less than two months to live, and was suffering “overwhelming pain”.
He told her that he “wanted to go gently”, but he survived.
She said it was impossible to define a terminal illness, given the advances in medical science, and added: “I do not know what the outcome would have been if my noble and learned friend’s bill had been on the statute book.
“However, I am profoundly grateful that it was not. I know that my husband longed for release, and that today my son still has a father, and I still have a husband.”
The former director of public prosecutions, Lord Macdonald, a Liberal Democrat peer, said the bill – if it became law – would “herald a fundamental and irreversible shift in the attitude of the state to the deliberate application of death”, and would eventually “bring further changes in our approach to death by human hand”.
He warned that it “would be foolish to assume that everyone counselling a suicide acts from pure motives or that venality is always absent”.
But the crossbench peer Baroness Warnock suggested that it could be “altruistic” for someone to choose assisted suicide because of the “suffering, expense and misery they are causing to their family as they are being a burden”, as well as the possibility of being a “burden to the state”.
The Conservative justice minister Lord Faulks said the government believed that any change in the law was a matter of “individual conscience”, and “a matter for parliament to decide rather than government policy”.
Falconer said the principle of his bill was that “those who are terminally-ill should have choice over how they die, but subject to effective safeguards that prevent pressure or abuse”.
He said it would be “only a very limited and safeguarded change”, and he disagreed with those who argued that his bill “devalues the lives of those who are disabled and puts pressure on them to take the option of an assisted death”.
He added: “The option of an assisted death is available only to those who are terminally-ill and is available to the disabled on the same basis as everyone else.”
23 July 2014