The following speech was made in today’s debate in the House of Lords on the Assisted Dying Bill 2013-2014 by Lord Brennan:
My Lords, to make it lawful for doctors to assist people to commit suicide is a profound step. This morning’s editorial in the Guardian said that it would change the moral landscape of our nation. A Bill that proposes this therefore demands, whether you are for it or not, rigorous examination. If one applies that examination at this early stage, the Bill can be seen to be dangerous in its effect.
First, it favours the few invulnerable against the many vulnerable, who may be pressured into it by fears of being a burden, either through physical dependency or financial cost or both. I use those adjectives, “invulnerable” and “vulnerable”, following Lord Sumption, one of the judges in the recent case. He used them in counterpoint to explain the difference between the strong and clear-minded and the weak, depressed, ill and confused. At paragraph 228 of his judgment, in referring to the risk to the vulnerable, he said:
“There is a good deal of evidence that this problem exists, that it is significant, and that it is aggravated by negative modern attitudes to old age and sickness-related disability”.
The problem will surely get worse. Over the next 25 years, people of 60 and above will become 50% of the population of the nation, presently estimated to take up 60% of the National Health Service’s costs. Can it be doubted that the problem that Lord Sumption identified is not going to get worse? Of course it is, both in the individual case and in society, where the cost of living as an old or sick person will be balanced against the treatments of death under these arrangements. We must be realistic. Limited today, it will be extended soon enough if necessary.
Secondly, there is a danger to the medical profession. This Bill dismantles the Hippocratic oath by creating two kinds of doctor: those who will not help you to kill yourself and those who will. I cannot imagine more diametrically opposed medical standards than those. How is it to be resolved within the profession? How can it help public confidence in doctors and nurses?
Thirdly, the Bill is limited in its effect, but the prospect of litigation and further legislation is obvious. The more we are told about autonomy and choice, the more a group of litigants will say to the court, “I want to exercise my autonomy and my choice. Why is it restricted to the terminally ill? Why six months? Why the discrimination between those types of cases and me? Look at the Equality Act”—et cetera, et cetera. It will come. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, has not told us, nor has any of his supporters thus far, what they will do in the future if this Bill is passed. Is this a first step or the last step?
Fourthly and finally, there is a danger to Parliament. If one doubts that it is as serious as I have suggested, look at Clauses 8 and 9. The Bill states that execution, oversight and regulation are given by us to the Executive to devise and implement without reference to Parliament. I find that astonishing.
I accept the misery that can come with illness and the time near to death, but in the 21st century, with all the technology and medical advances that we have, are we driven to the conclusion, in the words of one of the royal colleges, that it is best to be compassionate by eliminating suffering through elimination of the sufferer? Surely we can do better than that.
Legislating for hard cases nearly always produces bad law. In the rigour that we apply to this Bill, let us make sure that we do not make that mistake again.