My Lords, not only am I opposed to the Bill but I am completely opposed to the principle of assisted suicide. The Bill would completely change the state’s role in people’s lives, the role of doctors in care and the way in which we look at the ill and the sick. The duty of a doctor is one of care and protection of life. A doctor is trained to do that. The doctor/patient relationship is an important one. A change in the law that effectively puts state-sanctioned killing in the hands of doctors would completely change the way that the public look at health professionals.
What is more, we would be asking doctors to make a life-or-death decision regarding matters on which they could not be completely sure. First, it is impossible for a doctor to know for certain how long a person will live. This has been proven many times. Secondly, the Bill makes no legal framework for psychological assessment or coercion. Suicide is as much about state of mind as it is about state of health.
On the subject of psychological well-being, it may be that outside pressures are being exerted on a person. There may be pressure from people who have a financial agenda. The right to die can easily become a duty to die. The law should not affirm that some lives are not worth living. A vulnerable person may start to think that they would be better off dead, but those tempted to think about that need protection and care, not the right to die. No life is less worth living than another. Life is sacred.
In my own experience, I have found that illness can bring families together. Before my mother died she was very ill and indeed she felt that she was a burden. But in caring for her my family was enriched. She died with us by her side, feeling close to her family and close to God.
The insecurity of the vulnerable would only be worsened by the passing of the Bill. This is a moral choice between right and wrong, between life and death. What we are talking about today is a dressed-up version of suicide. Suicide was illegal in this country until 1961 and is still contrary to most established religions. Indeed, it is those religions in which vulnerable people find solace in their final years.
This Bill is talking about ending the lives of the terminally ill, but we cannot pretend that this will end here. If you concede this for the terminally ill, you make it more difficult to argue the case against it for others, such as those who are disabled or are non-terminally ill. I suspect that those in favour of this Bill are well aware of this fact. This is about setting a precedent.
We could spend a long time talking about the necessary safeguards to make this change of law more acceptable, but no safeguards will make it acceptable fundamentally to change the way our society looks at the vulnerable. Most medical associations and colleges are against legalising assisted suicide. I would like to add that it would be against the spirit of the Hippocratic oath.
I shall conclude by sharing with noble Lords a conversation I once had with Dame Cicely Saunders when I met her as I have supported St Christopher’s Hospice. As noble Lords may be aware, Dame Cicely Saunders is widely recognised as the founder of the hospice movement. She recognised the important role that hospices had played in palliative care, but she emphasised to me that there is so much more to be done to improve palliative care. Instead of taking the easy way out and debating ending the lives of people who are suffering, I believe our time would be better spent discussing how the state, the medical profession and society at large could better take care of people who are vulnerable in the final years of their lives.