Assisted Dying Bill – speech by Caroline Spelman

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On the 11th September 2015 the House of Commons considered the Assisted Dying Bill, a private member’s bill tabled by Rob Marris MP. Caroline Spelman MP, the Second Church Estates Commissioner, spoke during the debate.

MPs rejected the Bill in the subsequent vote by 330 to 118 votes. 

Spelman CCQs June 2015 1Mrs Caroline Spelman (Meriden) (Con): I respect the sincerely held views of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton South West (Rob Marris). The whole nation will be looking at our debate on this issue today and it is right that we show respect for the strongly held views on all sides, but I beg to differ with him.

Historically, our society has abhorred suicide and based that view on the principle of the sanctity of life, but that argument is becoming harder to make in an increasingly secular society. The view that life is a gift from God with all that it entails, including pain and suffering, and that it is not for us to bring it to an end, is perceived to be at odds with the prevailing view of our rights, including a perceived right to end our own life.

Naturally, none of us likes the idea that our death will be painful and difficult. We need to do more to reassure people that it does not have to be. Our hospices offer outstanding help and support to the dying and their families. The recently opened Marie Curie hospice in Solihull is a brilliant example of this. It is possible, with sheer humanity, to make dying better. Still, 50% of us will die in hospital when we do not wish to, and a recent report on end-of-life care in hospitals shows gaps in medical training to provide the care that is needed. There is a significant risk that passing this Bill would reduce the available resources. The deputy chair of Hospice UK has suggested that such a change could threaten funding for hospices.

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) (Con): If the Bill goes through, it will create an enormous dilemma for our hospice movement. My own hospice, Rennie Grove Hospice Care, has written to me to say that it

“will not be involved in the provision of assisted dying to people under its care.”

That could lead to a situation in which people who needed care in such a hospice might not want to go to it, which would effectively remove a choice from dying people to have the palliative care that they require.

Mrs Spelman: My right hon. Friend demonstrates one of the dilemmas that the Bill presents. The National Council for Palliative Care has said:

“We believe the current Assisted Dying Bill puts vulnerable people at risk, without improving access to care”.

The heart of the issue of assisted dying goes deeper still, however—to society’s attitudes to ageing, to death and to dying. Why do so many people say, “I don’t want to be a burden”? In societies that revere the elderly, there is less fear among old people that they impose a strain on everyone else. One of my constituents put it like this:

“We are born into dependency, we rely on the goodwill of others even when we are in our prime, and dependency is a necessary feature of our senior years.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury has said that this Bill would lead Britain to cross

“a fundamental legal and ethical Rubicon”.

Respect for life underpins our criminal and human rights laws, as well as the Hippocratic oath, taken by all our doctors, to promote life. The Bill challenges that respect for life. It would result in a major shift in these principles, fundamentally changing the relationship between a doctor and their patient. It would not just legitimise suicide, but promote the participation of others in it. Even if we consider assisted dying to be acceptable in some circumstances, the law should not be changed.

Mr George Howarth: The right hon. Lady talked about people feeling that they did not want to be a burden, as though that was not a rational choice to make. In some circumstances, however, it can be perfectly rational for someone to say, “I do not want to be a burden on my family or on the health service, and this is probably the end of my life.”
Mrs Spelman: Let me put a rational question back to the right hon. Gentleman. How is it that senior members of our society have reached a point at which they feel they might be a burden? The increasing secularisation of society has contributed to this, because the Christian principle of honouring our fathers and mothers must have become weakened if our parents and grandparents are starting to feel that they are a burden to us.

Yasmin Qureshi (Bolton South East) (Lab) rose

Simon Hoare rose

Mrs Spelman: I should like to make a bit more progress before I give way. Assisted dying should be the absolute exception, not the rule. In practice, the law as it stands has seldom been used to convict anyone for assisting someone else to die. Strong laws protect vulnerable people. The existing law protects the elderly, the disabled and those who might otherwise feel pressured to die. It is difficult to prove definitively that someone has not been coerced. It would be almost impossible to pass a law that could definitively prove one way or another whether an elderly person had been coerced.
Yasmin Qureshi: I thank the right hon. Lady for giving way.
I agree with what she is saying, and I should like to give the House a small example of why that is the case. My mother is 83 years of age and has a number of health issues. Last year, she was in and out of hospital, and in April this year she was told by the consultant that she did not have much time to live. In May, she was given about three days. My mother has now recovered and is very healthy again. Before I left home at 5 o’clock this morning, I had tea and biscuits with her, and she was walking about. She has recovered, but when she was suffering, she was saying, “I feel I am a real burden on my family. I can’t do this.” She was very emotionally distressed, and she still sometimes gets distressed, but she has survived and she is now healthy.
Mrs Spelman: I suspect that in the course of this debate we will hear a lot of personal examples such as that given by the hon. Lady, which speak volumes about the predicament the Bill presents.

Research by Age UK has shown that about 500,000 elderly people are abused each year in the UK and there is a very real danger that if this Bill were to pass, many of these people could be put at further risk. As the Care Not Killing campaign has said:

“The right to die can so easily become the duty to die.”

An opinion survey commissioned by the charity Scope last year showed that the majority of disabled people also fear change to the assisted dying law. For them, the current situation provides protection for the living. There are surely reasons why most doctors are against this Bill. Only one in seven doctors would agree to assist a suicide, so the chances are that the doctor involved would not be known to the patient or the family, which is undesirable.

This is also a Bill without any detailed, up-front safeguards. It outlines a process, but does not give enough detail about how it would work. The so-called “safeguards” are left to codes of practice; set out in clause 8, which states that they “may” be issued by the Secretary of State—but “may” is not strong enough. The first so-called “safeguard” is that the Bill applies only in the case of a terminally ill adult with less than six months to live, but, as has been pointed out, it is difficult to ascertain whether someone does have just six months to live. In addition, clause 1 suggests that the process must be entirely voluntary and initiated by a patient, but if assisted dying becomes regarded as a medical treatment, it is likely that a doctor would be under some positive obligation to suggest it to patients.

The disposition of this House towards this difficult subject will reveal these strong views. I have lost both my parents, one of whom suffered in death. I have sat with good friends who were slipping away in a hospice. I have wept over friends prematurely departing this life. Grief is made worse by missing the parting. As the letter from all the faith leaders put it,

“for very many people… the natural processes of dying, allied with good palliative care, enable them and their families to experience precious moments of love, care, reconciliation and even hope; processes that ought not to be truncated.”

(via Parliament.UK)