18 Jul 2014

Assisted dying – a right or ‘murder by physician’?

In the glorious, oak-panelled chamber of the Lords there has been no fury, no barracking, no shouting.

The debate is not speedily delivered. The voices are courteous and slow, some quiver slightly with age. But all of this belies the ferocity of what is being said.

Queen Elizabeth II Attends The State Opening Of Parliament

The debate is on the right to die – or “murder by physician” as opponents would have it (even the shorthand for describing the subject matter cannot be agreed upon).

And the language has been combative, provocative, inflammatory even.

Baroness Nicholson warned that Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill – allowing terminally ill patients with less than six months to live to be allowed help to die – would turn the National Health Service into the “National Death Service.” She spoke of doctors as “executioners”.

Lord Mawson focused on the medical profession too – under the bill two independent doctors would be required to agree that the patient had made an informed decision to die. He warned against such blind faith in doctors.

“We are given daily examples where we are failed by specialists”, he said. “Doctors are not gods, they are people.”

As always, some of the most compelling testimony against the bill came from Baroness Jane Campbell. She has severe spinal atrophy and can only speak through a ventilator.

“This bill is about me,” she said. “I did not ask for it and do not want it but it is about me nevertheless.”

She said while supporters claimed it was just about the terminally ill and not the disabled, that she claimed is simply not true.

“The bill purports to offer choice , the option of premature death instead of pain , suffering and disempowerment. That is not choice: pain, suffering and disempowerment are treatable. My own experience is that ..there is no situation that cannot be improved.”

But if such strong arguments hold sway then consider the submissions from the other side.

Lord Falconer, the architect of the bill, painted this picture of life – or death in fact – without such legislation.

“The current situation leaves the rich able to go to Switzerland, the majority reliant on amateur assistance.”

He went on: “Many people fearing so much for those they leave behind… they hoard pills or put a plastic bag over their head when they are alone.”

Lord Blair said the brutal truth was that many dying people face “quite disgusting” deaths. The former chief of the Metropolitan Police said the current law left people who helped a loved one to die unlikely to face prosecution but still being put through a police investigation.

“The house will be a crime scene. Tents, officers in forensic clothing, photography.” It was he said, immensely distressing for the relatives and a situation which must be changed.

Lord Davies of Stamford described the end of life when palliative care perhaps comes just too late “when symptoms become too distressing and people are vomiting blood, short of breath, doubly incontinent, they are in great distress.” It is strong, visceral stuff.

As I write there are still scores of members of the Lords waiting for their turn to speak. This is a political issue and yet a very personal one. It is about the individual but at the heart of what sort of society we all live in.

The debate is in the exclusive, hallowed halls of the Lords today but ultimately it’s one for us all.

Follow @JackieLongc4 on Twitter.

Tweets by @jackielongc4