The present Assisted Dying Bill proposed by former Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer received its first reading at the House of Lords. This Bill proposed to allow terminally ill patients who are standing at the gates of death with no more than six months to live and have a “clear and settled intention” to end their lives to be prescribed a lethal dose of drugs under the professional agreement of two doctors. On the 18th July 2014, the Bill came to the first significant stage of debate in the House of Lords. The debate stretched over ten hours with the House almost equally divided between supporting and opposing the Bill. Among the criticism raised so as to oppose the Bill were the fear of slippery slope and the fear of pressuring the old and disabled people to end their lives as they will always wish that they “would be better dead” so that their family can move on with their lives after they cease to be their burden. However, Lord Blair of Boughton allayed the fears during the debate by saying that the research done by the commission on assisted dying in Oregon, “which is the only equivalent jurisdiction with an equivalent law … found evidence neither of a slippery slope down to involuntary euthanasia nor of the elderly being pressured”. Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury voiced his support for the Bill, “When suffering is so great that some patients, already knowing that they are at the end of life, make repeated pleas to die, it seems a denial of that loving compassion which is the hallmark of Christianity to refuse to allow them to fulfil their own clearly stated request—after, of course, a proper process of safeguards has been observed. If we truly love our neighbours as ourselves, how can we deny them the death that we would wish for ourselves in such a condition? That is what I would want.”
With 65 peers speaking in favour of the Bill and 62 against, the Bill reached the Committee Stage on the 7th November 2014. A total of 175 amendments were proposed of the Bill with Lord Pannick suggested one of the many which goes some way to satisfy opponents of the Bill – a judicially sanctioned suicide. In order to avoid vulnerable patients being pressured to seek the easy way out, safeguards is not just a desire but a necessity. Baroness Butler-Sloss, former head of the High Court Family Division who previously criticised the Bill for having “utterly inadequate” safeguards during the Bill’s Second Reading, pointed that, “On the assumption that this Bill is passed it seems to me critical and absolutely essential that the court should have an input to it.” In other words, terminally ill patients expressing their wish to die will have to seek for court’s authority before they could receive the lethal drugs. Lord Pannick submitted that, “Judges already decide these questions of life and death… in a principled manner but also with great compassion and where necessary they decide them speedily.” This view has been agreed upon by Lord Falconer who reassured peers that this “will ultimately give greater protection.” Again, Lord Falconer emphasized that the Bill is for the terminally ill and not for the depressed disabled patient, and the patient will have to physically administer the dose themselves. On the other hand, Lord Tebbit, whose wife who has been in constant pain since being injured in the Brighton bombing thirty years ago, spoke “with some feeling” that the legalisation of assisted dying will lure her to grave to which she will say again to him what she said to him a little while ago – “You know, you would be better off without me.”
Lord Falconer quoted Lord Neuberger who propounded, “A system whereby a judge or other independent assessor is satisfied in advance that someone has a voluntary, clear, settled, and informed wish to die and for his suicide then to be organised in an open and professional way, would, at least in my current view, provide greater and more satisfactory protection for the weak and vulnerable, than a system which involves a lawyer from the DPP’s office inquiring, after the event, whether the person who had killed himself had such a wish, and also to investigate the actions and motives of any assister, who would, by definition, be emotionally involved and scarcely able to take, or even to have taken, an objective view.”
The Bill is currently in the House of Lords awaiting the Report Stage and has yet to pass through the many hurdles even before it reaches the House of Commons where remarkable debates over for and against the Bill are foreseeable. Nonetheless, Sarah Wootton, the chief executive of the pro-euthanasia campaign group Dignity in Dying told BBC that she was optimistic with the Bill’s development – “The acceptance of Lord Pannick’s amendment is evidence that reason and common sense are winning the day. We have moved a significant step closer to a change in the law.”
Suk Chyi Khoo is a final year law student at the University of Hull who is passionate about pro bono and human rights.