In a debate on patient choice at the end of life on 12 December 2013, peers have disagreed over whether terminally ill patients should be given the right to assisted dying. Labour peer Lord Dubs said “people should have the right to choose to be free from intolerable pain and discomfort – providing it is their free choice. Assisted dying with safeguards is one of the many legitimate choices that dying patients should have,” he asserted.
But Conservative peer Lord McColl of Dulwich countered that it was not possible to legislate for ‘appropriate’ safeguards. He believed that legalising assisted dying would “send a message that suicide is a socially acceptable response to terminal or incurable diseases.”
Also against the idea was cross bencher Baroness Hollins, president of the British Medical Association which opposes assisted dying, who asserted that ongoing improvements in palliative care allow patients ‘to die with dignity’.
But Labour peer Lord Joffe, who has tried unsuccessfully to legislate to allow terminally ill people to be helped to die, asked what option opponents of change proposed for terminally ill patients for whom palliative care was not the solution, insisting that assisted dying was a ‘compassionate option’. Conservative Baroness Flather, stood by previous remarks that she would help her husband, who has multiple sclerosis, to die if he was in great pain, “regardless of what the law would do to me, because I loved him. But fortunately he is not suffering with pain, he is doing everything,” she said, before adding “But he got two emails saying ‘watch out for that woman’ on that occasion.”
Liberal Democrat QC Lord Taverne said the state of the law was ‘indefensible’, the vast majority of people consistently told pollsters they supported assisted suicide and favoured a change in the law.
Opposition spokesman Lord Beecham said there was no official opposition line on assisted dying, and told peers he would speak from a personal standpoint. He spoke movingly of his wife who died of bowel cancer in 2010, telling peers that she had made it clear she would like to end her life if she suffered intolerable pain. “I know that she would have wished me to express support for the choice that in the end she did not have to make,” he concluded.
Wrapping up the debate for the government, Baroness Jolly said the government was committed to improving the quality and choice of end-of-life care. She insisted that any change in the law was an issue for individual conscience and a matter for Parliament to decide, rather than for government policy.