You are here

Assisted Dying Bill progresses to Committee Stage as Cameron mistakenly calls it ‘euthanasia’

Battle lines are drawn by supporters and opponents as private members bill takes one step closer to becoming law following record debate

21 July 2014

Add comment

Battle lines are drawn by supporters and opponents as private members bill takes one step closer to becoming law following record debate

Lord Falconer's controversial Assisted Dying Bill had its second reading last Friday in the House of Lords. The debate between peers lasted nine hours 43 minutes. The Lords heard from 126 speakers, a record for a debate in the Lords. Sixty-four peers spoke in support of the Bill, with 59 against and three neutrals.

Prior to the debate, 27 leading figures in the health care profession, including 11 present or former presidents of royal medical colleges and a former NHS medical director, wrote to every peer urging them to back Lord Falconer's bill.

The letter said that the bill "would provide the option of relief to a small but significant number of patients who suffer unendurably during the terminal days or weeks of a difficult illness despite the best that palliative care can offer".

Religious support

Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, recently revealed that he now supported the bill "in the face of the reality of needless suffering. In strictly observing the sanctity of life, the church could now actually be promoting anguish and pain, the very opposite of a Christian message of hope", he commented.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu has also come out in favour of a change in the law. Writing in The Observer he said he reveres "the sanctity of life but not at any cost" and suggested that prolonging the life of Nelson Mandela had been an "affront" to his dignity. The retired Archbishop continued: "I think when you need machines to help you breathe, then you have to ask questions about the quality of life being experienced and about the way money is being spent."

Naomi Pinder, head of wills and probate at Liverpool-based Jackson Canter Solicitors, agreed with Tutu's arguments but said that such a significant change to the law surrounding end-of-life should not be rushed into.

"I do not wish my life to be extended when there is no hope of recovery for me. I signed a Living Will document over 20 years ago. Personally my faith in Jesus is central to each and every part of my life and I believe that death is not an end, it is the end of the chapter on Earth and the start of the rest of eternity."

Despite this sentiment, Pinder said she drew a distinction between not extending a life by the provision of drugs or treatment and actually giving drugs to end the life: "I am troubled by the position of the person who ends the life of another. I have not reconciled this grave concern. This is what makes legislation so complex," she said.

"Some, like me, find it difficult to accept the involvement of a third party speeding up the end of life. This bill has prompted a really important debate and it will be interesting to see how it unfolds and what the bill looks like if it completes its passage through parliament," she said.

Debating 'euthanasia'

Meanwhile, the prime minister has commented that he would be "very happy" to host a Commons debate on assisted dying: "There are now opportunities for back benchers to hold debates in the Chamber and I am sure the new leader of the House of Commons…will be listening carefully to that request ... for myself I am not convinced that further steps need to be taken.

Cameron said his primary concern about legalising euthanasia was that people could be "pushed into things that they don't actually want for themselves, but by all means let's have the debate."

Saimo Chahal QC, a partner at Bindmans who represented Jane Nicklinson and Paul Lamb in their recent appeal to the Supreme Court responded: "There are some confusing aspects to the comments made by the prime minister which suggest that he has not been properly briefed on recent legal developments, firstly with regard to the Assisted Dying Bill and its remit and secondly the implications arising from the judgment in the Lamb/Nicklinson case. In particular, he seems to be unaware of the, shall we say 'message' sent by the Supreme Court to parliament.

"The debate he suggests without is likely to be wholly inadequate to address the issues arising from the judgment. Secondly, he talks about 'euthanasia' which is not the subject matter of either the Assisted Dying Bill or of the Nicklinson/Lamb judgment."

Chahal concludes: "The prime minister goes on to totally prejudge the issues, without knowing precisely what they are by saying that he doubts that further steps need to be taken. This ignores the fact that the Supreme Court has suggested that parliament should review the ban on assisted suicide and if it does not do so in future the court itself may be minded to make a declaration that the ban on assisted suicide is incompatible with fundamental rights. It does not yet appear that these messages have got through to the prime minister and other politicians. It is high time that they did."

Safeguarding choice

Lord Falconer, speaking after the debate in the Lords on Friday, said: "We have heard today many examples of people suffering against their wishes at the end of life. It is my hope that parliament has taken a significant step towards a safeguarded law fit for the 21st century, which provides both greater choice and protection at the end of life.

"I commend the House of Lords for the quality of debate. Crucially, peers on both sides of the argument realised the importance of debating this bill further and in detail at a Committee of the Whole House, clause by clause, safeguard by safeguard."

The chief executive of campaigning organisation Dignity in Dying, Sarah Wootton, said: "I believe that the debate on assisted dying has now evolved, partly as a result of the recent Supreme Court judgment. The focus is not on whether the law should change, but on how it should change. "There is real momentum behind the bill; an overwhelming majority of the public has consistently supported change, and the traditional opposition from faith leaders and medics is beginning to crumble."

Wootton concluded: "This is a campaign driven by members of the public, and supporters of Dignity in Dying who are facing difficult end-of-life choices, or have witnessed the suffering of a loved one. They will be heartened by the way that peers have constructively engaged with this important and timely debate. We look forward to the committee stage of the bill with confidence."

In 2006, the last time a bill on assisted dying was debated at second reading, a 'wrecking' amendment was tabled by peers opposed to a change in the law. Lord Joffe's bill was rejected, following that amendment, by 148 votes to 100, demonstrating that the House of Lords was not agreeable at that time to the principle of assisted dying.

A YouGov poll conducted just last month found that a majority of the general public, 73 per cent of adults in Britain, supported the proposals in the bill. Thirteen per cent did not think the bill should become law, with a further 13 per cent undecided.

Davina Hehir, director of legal strategy and policy at Dignity in Dying, said that the public is in need of a compassionate law that can safeguard choice.

Categorised in:

Vulnerable Clients