Assisted Dying (No.2) Bill

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs) (Con):

In 1933, just hours before the death of King George V, Lord Dawson, the king’s doctor, issued his famous bulletin from Buckingham Palace. He said that the king’s life was drawing peacefully to a close. Dawson had good cause to know that, because he had just administered a lethal dose of morphine and cocaine to the king, in an action that remains controversial to this day. He undoubtedly brought the king’s life to a speedier close, yet, despite that act, just a short time afterwards, Dawson spoke against a Bill introduced to enable euthanasia, drawing the clear distinction between efforts that doctors may make right at the end of somebody’s life to ensure they have what has been described by some hon. Members as a good death and to ease suffering, and actions intended to bring someone’s life to an end, even though at their behest, that amount not to assisted dying, as someone has said, but to assisted suicide. That is surely an important distinction.

Some hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for North Norfolk (Norman Lamb), have couched their defence of the Bill in the right to choose. My hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Crispin Blunt) also talked about the right to choose. Others have talked about the right to die. The language of rights is one we should be careful about using in this space. If there is a right to die, why is it constrained by a six-month time period? If there is a right to die, why is it constrained simply by the fact of having a terminal illness? We accept in this country that people have the right to commit suicide, in the sense that it is no longer a criminal offence, but the law has always been clear that should somebody assist that, particularly a medical professional, a line has been crossed.

We have focused a lot on the unintended consequences of the Bill, which are indeed highly problematic. Hon. Members on all sides are concerned about the possibility of coercion. We already know there is concern about how elderly people can be treated, and there is a clear danger that vulnerable people might be drawn into having the Bill applied to them. That concerns everybody. However, I want to raise the question about the intended consequences of the Bill. Is it the wish of the House that there be more assisted suicides or fewer? Do we think that assisted suicide, or suicide itself, is ever a good thing? Several distressing cases have been adduced. It is undoubtedly true that people might suffer and that, as the hon. and learned Member for Holborn and St Pancras (Keir Starmer) said, some people might therefore be forced to go to another clinic—a very few people, as a matter of fact. It cannot be a sufficient justification for changing the law, however, simply to say that people are suffering. The House cannot expect to legislate away all suffering. We have to be absolutely sure that no more harm will be created by the legislation we pass. If we enable more people to take their own lives—something that society and the law has judged should be a bad thing—will we have done a good thing? Is that a good outcome for the Bill? In seeking to alleviate suffering—a noble ambition—we will potentially enable more lives to be taken, and that surely cannot be a good thing.

I have the gravest concerns about the Bill. I am concerned not just that people might be coerced into taking their own lives, with someone else’s assistance, but that any more lives will be lost at all. The law has always regarded it as wrong to assist in someone’s suicide because, in the end, we think that suicide is wrong, even if we think that it should not be a criminal offence. That is why we should take the very greatest care before taking this fundamentally different step.

Alexander Black