Lord Sumption tells stage 4 cancer patient her life is 'less valuable'

Former justice’s remark made to woman with bowel cancer during TV debate on Covid lockdowns

The former supreme court justice Jonathan Sumption has been criticised for telling a woman with stage 4 cancer that her life was “less valuable” during a televised discussion of the costs of coronavirus lockdowns.

Appearing on the BBC One show The Big Questions on Sunday to discuss the question of whether lockdown was “punishing too many for the greater good”, Lord Sumption, one of the most prominent anti-lockdown campaigners, said he did not accept that “all lives are of equal value”.

The former justice, who served on the supreme court until 2018, said he believed his children’s and grandchildren’s lives were “worth more because they’ve got a lot more of it ahead”.

Responding to Sumption’s remarks, Deborah James, who has stage 4 metastatic bowel cancer and hosts the BBC’s You, Me and the Big C podcast, said: “With all due respect, I am the person who you say their life is not valuable.”

Sumption then interrupted James, saying: “I didn’t say your life was not valuable, I said it was less valuable.”

James continued: “Who are you to put a value on life? In my view, and I think in many others, life is sacred and I don’t think we should make those judgment calls. All life is worth saving regardless of what life it is people are living.

“I’m fully aware and I’ve seen first-hand and said goodbye to best friends in terms of the collateral Covid is causing, but at the same time I’m incredibly grateful to be somebody who is kept alive because of the NHS.”

Sumption was also challenged by Catherine Foot from the Centre for Ageing Better, who said she “shuddered” at his suggestion that all lives were not equal. She said that the crisis necessitated drawing “ethical red lines”, one of which is that “every human is equal”.

Sumption’s remarks were widely condemned online, with the human rights barrister Adam Wagner describing them as “inhumane, almost grotesque”.

Genevieve Edwards, the chief executive of the charity Bowel Cancer UK, told PA Media: “To describe someone’s life as ‘less valuable’ because they have advanced bowel cancer is callous nonsense.

“It’s also incredibly upsetting to people who have experienced disruption to their diagnosis and treatment because of pressures on the NHS, and insulting to the staff doing their absolute best for every patient they see.

“What’s important is to protect the NHS and each and every life that depends on it, not pit one person against another.”

During the programme, Sumption argued that only the “old and vulnerable” should isolate. He was challenged on this point by the host Nicky Campbell, who questioned whether his solution wasn’t “utterly simplistic” as vulnerability includes a broad spectrum of people, and people of all ages interact in society.

Sumption also claimed that government action had “virtually no impact” on mortality rates – a point rebuffed by Calum Semple, a professor of child health and outbreak medicine at Liverpool University, who described it as “plain wrong”. Semple also underlined that “the value of life doesn’t change at the age of 70”.

The former justice later claimed that his comments had been misinterpreted, saying: “I object extremely strongly to any suggestion that I was inferring that Miss James’s life was less valuable because she had cancer.

“I thought she was responding to my earlier comments about older people being protected by a total lockdown which is causing immense harm to the young who are unaffected.

“That harm can be to their mental health or through cooping undergraduates up at university or through the loss of jobs. I was saying this should not be inflicted on the young to protect old people like me.

“If Miss James has misinterpreted that then I can only apologise to her as it was not my intention to suggest she was less valuable. Sometimes on videolinks it can be difficult to hear what the other person is saying.”

Sumption has been an outspoken critic of the government’s handling of the pandemic, frequently arguing that the measures taken to curb the virus have been an attack on personal liberties. Delivering the Cambridge Freshfields annual law lecture in October, he said the emergency measures taken by the government in the spring were “the most significant interference with personal freedom in the history of our country”.

• This article was amended on 18 January 2021. Sumption’s title comes from his former role as a supreme court justice, rather than from sitting in the House of Lords. This has been corrected.


Clea Skopeliti

The GuardianTramp

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