Baroness Finlay’s speech in the assisted suicide debate

The following speech was made in today’s debate in the House of Lords on the Assisted Dying Bill 2013-2014 by Baroness Finlay of Llandaff:

My Lords, like many others, particularly doctors who will be expected to be involved in assisting their patients’ suicide, I do not support this Bill. But the Supreme Court has asked Parliament to look at the issue and we should not oppose it at Second Reading. I have worked caring for dying patients for more than 25 years and I have registered my interests.

This Bill has broad categories into which almost anyone can be shoe-horned and it comes within a whisker of full-blown euthanasia. Are there safeguards? No, there are only broad categories into which you will find some doctor who would state that almost anyone fits. Let us take a prognosis of six months: there is no accurate test at all. Even a best guess is so surrounded with inaccuracy that the only honest answer to the question, “How long have I got?”, is to say, “I honestly can’t tell”. Even of those thought to be likely to die within 48 hours, about 4% improve and some even go home. But this Bill is not about them or about better care at the end of life; it is about assisted suicide, effectively on request.

Nor is it about a right to die. Everyone will die. If you do not want treatment that might prolong your life, you can refuse it. For those with motor neurone disease on a ventilator who want to stop treatment, we can manage their dying peacefully and gently as they die of their illness. When treatment is withdrawn, it is not withdrawn with the doctor’s intention of bringing about the patient’s death; when lethal drugs are supplied, they are supplied with that intent. This Bill is about licensing doctors to supply lethal drugs to some of their patients and helping them to commit suicide, however long their life might otherwise have gone on for. I have seen the strongest people, including politicians and senior doctors, be the most vulnerable when facing dying—vulnerable to coercive influence and vulnerable to their fears. The role of my profession is to address those fears and to support those people, not to encourage them, even silently, to believe that they should foreshorten their lives.

Today’s doctors are worn down by workload. They do not know their patients in detail. They know only what they are told in a brief encounter. They cannot possibly detect coercion from family. I cared for a lady whose family we all believed were loving but they stopped visiting as much once her fixed-term life insurance expired. What about subtle coercion from staff attitudes that are negative or instil hopelessness?

The signature of a second doctor provides no assurance. Who is going to find this second doctor? He or she is likely to be known to the first doctor as someone who sees physician-assisted suicide as a reasonable response to severe progressive illness. Let us not forget that Dr Shipman’s 176 cremation forms were all countersigned by a second doctor.

Of course, palliative care does not have a magic wand to make everything right. Nothing in medicine has 100% success. Even assisted suicide sometimes fails to kill. But we do not kill patients with morphine properly prescribed to relieve pain, or with nerve blocks or other interventions. The Francis report showed how bad care can be. The well intentioned Liverpool Care Pathway failed: it became just another tick-box exercise. That is what this will be — a set of forms to be filled in, without proper scrutiny of the assessments, the processes and the administration.

Those of us at the sharp end who care for terminally ill patients day in, day out know that the real work of assisting someone to die is not just something on a to-do list. It calls for good care, dedicated support and time, and not the quick fix of offering the medical equivalent of a loaded gun.

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