On Monday 6th March 2017, Baroness Jay of Paddington tabled a debate in the House of Lords, asking the Government “what assessment they have made of recent legislation on assisted dying in North America; and whether those laws provide an appropriate basis for legislation in England and Wales.” The Bishop of Worcester, the Rt Revd John Inge, spoke in the debate.
The Lord Bishop of Worcester: My Lords, I oppose assisted dying not on religious, but on human grounds. Surely the only place in North America where legislation has been in place long enough to draw any reasonable conclusions is Oregon. The claim of those pressing for assisted suicide here, that there have been no documented cases of abuse or coercion in the two decades since it was passed, is highly contentious. The US Disability Rights Education & Defense Fund—a leading national civil rights law and policy centre—has documented cases of complication and abuse arising from the law in Oregon and neighbouring Washington state. Writing in the Wall St Journal, William Toffler, a doctor in Oregon, described how the law there has had adverse consequences for the doctor-patient relationship, and how a developing climate of “secrecy” and “fear” has worsened the situation of the most vulnerable.
Little wonder that here in the UK, alongside medical professionals, those who have been most vocal in their opposition to assisted dying are grass-roots groups of disabled people. Disabled activists see it as a step towards a society that develops social and cost-related judgments about a person’s quality and value of life, which then become inevitable factors in the conversation around eligibility for assisted suicide. That is why investing in palliative care, not offering legal assistance with suicide, is the only truly progressive way forward.
Lord Keen of Elie (Con, Minister) [extract]: The debate on this issue is often characterised as being a choice between legalising assisted dying on the one hand and the provision of high-quality end-of-life care on the other, but the two are not mutually exclusive. Compassion for the dying person drives both sides of the debate. Wherever one stands on the desirability of legislative change, it is of the utmost importance that all dying people receive high-quality, compassionate care at the end of their lives. Equally, we are all as one, I am sure, in our desire to protect the rights of those who are vulnerable from direct or indirect pressure to take such a step. The central issue is then whether a blanket ban on assisting suicide is a necessary and proportionate way of achieving this.
Those opposed to change argue that any relaxation of the law would constitute too great a risk to sick and disabled people, and that safeguards would not necessarily give enough protection to vulnerable people who may feel pressure, whether real or imagined, to end their own lives. Those in favour of change argue that safeguards would protect vulnerable people from such pressure, while affording dying adults the choice of an assisted death if their suffering becomes too great. As the Supreme Court recognised in Nicklinson, there is a diversity of opinion about the degree of risk involved in relaxing the law in this area but not about the existence of the risk. It is unlikely that the risk of vulnerable people feeling pressure to end their lives can ever be wholly eliminated or that every person who thinks he or she has a legitimate right to assisted suicide can be assisted.
Whatever provisions may be proposed, therefore, the real question is: how much risk to the vulnerable is acceptable in order not to deny those who would genuinely wish to be assisted to commit suicide the opportunity of an assisted death? That is a very difficult balance to strike and there are no simple answers, especially when those who are vulnerable are not necessarily easy to identify. Whatever the arguments for and against change, it is important that the ongoing debate should not lead those whose lives are affected by illness or disability to feel less valued. If ever the law is changed, appropriate safeguards will need to be considered very carefully indeed.
The legal, administrative, practical and resource implications of any change to the law in this highly controversial area are considerable. We cannot in the very limited time available this evening do justice to them, although I would observe in response to the observations of the noble Earl, Lord Glasgow, that we of course take these issues seriously. I have no doubt that the debate will continue in one form or another, in Parliament and elsewhere. In the meantime, I thank all noble Lords for their contribution to this debate.