House of Lords debate evenly split over assisted dying legislation

Assisted dying bill would allow doctors to prescribe lethal dose to terminally ill patients judged to have less than six months to live

The House of Lords was split on Friday night over whether to back assisted dying, as supporters argued it would end the excruciating suffering of the terminally ill and opponents warned it was "a whisker away" from euthanasia.

The assisted dying bill, proposed by the former lord chancellor Charles Falconer, would allow doctors to prescribe a lethal dose to patients judged to have less than six months to live. By the end of an emotionally fraught 10-hour debate, about 65 peers had spoken in favour of the legislation and 62 against. There was no consensus among the professions, with doctors, senior lawyers, police chiefs, politicians and the clergy speaking on each side.

The bill's supporters included former police commissioner Ian Blair; former BBC chief John Birt; former director-general of Age Concern, Sally Greengross; former archbishop of Canterbury George Carey; and Elaine Murphy, a professor of old age psychiatry. Many of them raised the rights of individuals to choose their own fate, and argued there has been a shift in public opinion towards legalisation.

Opponents included paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson; the archbishop of York, Dr John Sentamu; former Conservative cabinet minister Norman Tebbit; Ilora Finlay, a professor of palliative medicine; Jock Stirrup, the former head of the army; Julia Neuberger, who led the review of the Liverpool care pathway; and Ken Macdonald, former director of public prosecutions.

Many warned it would lead to pressure on disabled people not to be a "burden" on relatives. Grey-Thompson questioned whether it would lead to Dignitas-style clinics in Britain and argued it would not provide people with a "Hollywood death". A few even made comparisons with the mass euthanasia undertaken by the Nazis.

Both sides brought up personal experiences of illness, including Janet Royall, the shadow leader of the Lords, and Jeremy Beecham, a senior Labour peer, who said their late spouses would have wanted them to support the bill. On the other side, disability rights campaigner Jane Campbell spoke from her wheelchair, with the aid of artificial respiration, about her fears that it would endanger the vulnerable and tempt her to use it in "periods of greatest difficulty".

With the House so evenly divided, the peers nodded Falconer's bill through to its next stage in parliament for further debate. It is unlikely to make it into law because of a lack of time, but David Cameron, while "unconvinced" of the arguments, has said he is open to a similar debate in the Commons. It comes after the supreme court suggested the matter should be considered by parliament in light of the failed "right-to-die" case brought by the widow of "locked-in syndrome" sufferer Tony Nicklinson.

Opening the debate, Falconer said allowing assisted dying would mean fewer suffering "lonely, cruel" ends at their own hands. "The current situation leaves the rich able to go to Switzerland, the majority reliant on amateur assistance, the compassionate treated like criminals," he said.

He was backed by Blair, who served on a commission on assisted dying that found "no evidence of a slippery slope" towards putting pressure on people to kill themselves. Another supporter was Birt, who said society should not deny individuals "the right to manage their own imminent, irreversible and prospectively painful, wretched, or deeply distressing death". Tory peer Patience Wheatcroft, a former newspaper editor, argued her mother would have "grabbed the loaded gun" of assisted dying when morphine was inadequate to relieve her suffering from leukaemia.

Many peers gave moving speeches against the bill. Tebbit was concerned about "vultures" with an eye on the financial incentives to end the lives of frail, ill and elderly people. He spoke of his wife, who was "crippled almost 30 years ago" in the IRA Brighton bombing, saying: "Those who care for such people are all too familiar with the moments of black despair, which prompt those words 'I would be better dead so that you could get on with your life.'"

Finlay, who has cared for dying patients for 25 years, said she believed the bill "comes within a whisker of full-blown euthanasia".

She also reminded the House of Lords that a second doctor signed off cremation forms for 176 patients murdered by Harold Shipman. One of the fiercest speeches against the bill was given by Emma Nicholson, a former MP, who said the "malign" legislation would lead to a "state death department", while Elizabeth Butler-Sloss, a former judge, criticised the bill's practicalities, saying it contained "utterly inadequate" safeguards.

Closing the debate, Falconer said it was near-unanimous that the House of Lords should "grasp the nettle" and settle the matter through further debate.

'Frightening proposal'

Lady Campbell of Surbiton addressed the Lords from her wheelchair with the aid of artificial respiration. She urged the House to talk to disabled people who oppose the bill and suggested it is a regressive step for those campaigning for disability rights.

"This bill gives no comfort to me. It frightens me because in periods of greatest difficulty, I know I might be tempted to use it. It only adds to the burden and challenges life holds for me. Pain, suffering and disempowerment are treatable. I have to believe that and it should always be treated.

"I have spent my life developing ways to prevent people in vulnerable situations feeling powerless and burdensome. They do get cajoled, they do feel a burden … Assisted dying will bring back outdated beliefs that devalue disabled and terminally ill people that we have tried so hard to get away from."


Rowena Mason, political correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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