Today’s press is full of coverage of yesterday’s debut of the assisted dying debate in the House of Lords. A flavour of the coverage can be found in our newslinks from this morning, and the Guardian live-blogged a lot of it here. The full transcript of the entire debate is now available on the Hansard site.
It was by all accounts an extremely good debate, with plenty of thoughtful and well-reasoned contributions on both sides and from all parties. This, coupled with the breadth of perspectives on offer, from doctors and bishops to policy experts, campaigners and more, is exactly the sort of debate a selection-based, advisory upper chamber is intended to produce. In that light it feels a little unfair to single any out, but here are a couple of noteworthy contributions.
First, in favour of the bill, we have Daniel Finkelstein of the Times, better described for lordly purposes as The Baron Finkelstein OBE. His contribution can be found on this page – either search for his name, or scroll down to just above the start of Col. 876. Finkelstein stood out amongst Conservative peers by being strongly in favour of the bill. He couches his argument in an essential appeal to personal liberty, and the idea that either freedom means the right to make what those in power deem to be bad decisions, or nothing:
“The question before us is not whether there ought to be a choice about how to die. That question has been answered by medical science: there is a choice. The question is, therefore, who makes that choice: whether I am allowed to make it for myself or whether the state should make it for me. The suggestion that I may not be able to make a good choice—that I may make it for the wrong reasons or under the wrong influences—is an argument that can be used against allowing people control over almost anything important. In fact, the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy of The Shaws, made that point almost exactly.”
In similar vein, he finishes his speech thus: “The supporters of the Bill seem to be asking for something that is very modest but also basic in a free society. We live as free people and now we want the right to die as we have lived.”
Of the opposing speeches, we have covered Lord Tebbit’s in our newslinks. Another that stood out was that of Baroness Campbell of Surbiton – or ‘just Jane’, to defer to the preference expressed on her website. You can find it on this page of the Hansard site, again either searching for her name or scrolling down to just above the start of Col. 809. Commissioner of the Equality and Human Rights Commission from 2006 to 2008 and before that of the Disability Rights Commission, Campbell – who suffers from Spinal Muscular Atrophy – took a very personal slant on the debate:
“My Lords, I have fought for autonomy the whole of my life. I have fought for that for myself and for others. I do not want this Bill. First, I must declare a very important interest. This Bill is about me. I did not ask for it and I do not want it but it is about me nevertheless. Before anyone disputes this, imagine that it is already law and that I ask for assistance to die. Do your Lordships think that I would be refused? No; you can be sure that there would be doctors and lawyers willing to support my right to die. Sadly, many would put their energies into that rather than improving my situation or helping me to change my mind. The Bill offers no comfort to me. It frightens me because, in periods of greatest difficulty, I know that I might be tempted to use it. It only adds to the burdens and challenges which life holds for me.”
She then used her personal story to make a broader point about the position of disabled people in the debate:
“Supporters of the Bill argue that there is a hard and fast distinction between terminal illness and disability. I can tell you absolutely that there is not. We, the folk this Bill claims to serve, know that. The Bill purports to offer choice—the option of premature death instead of pain, suffering and disempowerment—but it is a false choice. It is that of the burglar who offers to mug you instead. That is not choice. Pain, suffering and disempowerment are treatable—I have to believe that—and they should always be treated.”
Baroness Campbell’s speech was referred to often by later speakers, and supported later on by Baroness Masham of Ilton, another disabled peeress who also, like Campbell, sits on the crossbenches.
These extracts are just a small sample of the full debate, but they provide an indication of the value that resides in our less publicised upper chamber. It shall be interesting to compare how the subject is handled if and when it reaches the Commons.