No consensus on bill for assisted dying

“In an unequal society decisions on assisted death will be biased by extraneous circumstances.”

Updated - November 17, 2021 02:45 am IST

Published - July 20, 2014 12:10 am IST - London:

The “medical equivalent of a loaded gun,” or a humane way of dealing with end-life suffering? A wide-ranging debate in the House of Lords on July 18 on a draft law for assisted dying ended with no consensus on the question.

The Assisted Dying Bill, proposed by the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer of Thoroton, seeks to give doctors the legal right to prescribe a lethal dose on request from a terminally ill person who is of sound mind and has six months or less to live.

The Bill received its second reading on July 18th in the House in an atmosphere where public opinion preceding the debate had seemed to signal a shift in favour of such legislation.

An intervention by Archbishop Desmond Tutu gave legitimacy to the bill in the public mind.

The 82-year-old anti-apartheid fighter wrote a piece in The Sunday Observer on July 13 calling for a “mind-shift” in the debate. “I revere the sanctity of life – but not at any cost,” he said, while recalling the “disgraceful” treatment meted out to his friend and political ally Nelson Mandela, who was kept alive artificially in the last stages of his life, and even propped up for a photo shoot with politicians just before his death at 95.

Also weighing in with their support were the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord (George) Carey and the celebrated wheelchair-bound Cambridge scientist Stephen Hawking.

Despite the media build-up and Lord Falconer’s persuasive arguments in the House almost half the peers voiced their opposition to the bill. Sixty two spoke against it and 65 for.

The 10-hour debate ranged across a broad canvas of legal, ethical, philosophical, psychological and practical issues that this particular bill invokes.

The fraught issue split political allies and professional groups, as former police chiefs, carers, medical professionals, politicians, lawyers, and clergy gave testimony.

Personal experience – either a loved one’s needless end-stage suffering, or the happy consequences of treatment reversing a seemingly end-stage illness, were woven into the submissions.

Janet Royall, shadow leader of the Lords, and Jeremy Beecham, a Labour peer, both of whose late spouses died lingering deaths, supported the bill.

The United Kingdom’s organised disability sector has stoutly opposed assisted dying on the grounds that in an unequal society with imperfect standards of care for the terminally ill, the seriously disabled, and the very aged, decisions on assisted death will be biased by extraneous circumstances.

From her wheelchair and with the aid of artificial respiration devices, disability activist Baroness (Jane) Campbell of Surbiton, argued that the bill would only add to the burdens and challenges of people like her.

“It frightens me, because in periods of greatest difficulty, I know that I might be tempted to use it,” she said.

Helping the dying is about “good care, dedicated support and time, and not the quick fix of offering the medical equivalent of a loaded gun,” said Baroness Finlay of Llandatt, a professor of palliative medicine.

The bill came within a “whisker of full-blown euthanasia,” she said.

Opponents of the bill also warned of financial incentives to the healthcare system and families driving the legislation.

There could be “a great pressure on the elderly, the sick and disabled to do the decent thing and cease to be a burden on others,” argued Lord (Norman) Tebbit whose wife was crippled 30 years ago in an IRA bombing.

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