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MPs' speeches: the arguments

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18th September 2015

Considering the Assisted Dying (No. 2) Bill, MPs spoke on a wide range of principled and practical objections. Read a selection of these now

MPs' speeches: the arguments

Tough decisions

John Woodcock (Barrow and Furness, Lab):

This is the first time in my parliamentary career that I have been genuinely undecided when coming into the Chamber and I therefore wanted to listen to the entire debate. I have listened to every contribution so far, and I am still undecided.

I have been affected by the views of my constituents on both sides of the argument, and by the people who have spoken today. I have been particularly privileged to spend time with Clare Coulston, who is listening to the debate today. Her husband Paul died of motor neurone disease just two weeks ago, and she herself is in remission from a serious cancer and has two young children. She believes passionately that this Bill should pass, and has stated her views with wonderful eloquence, given the grief that she is suffering now. It would be easy for me to say that I of course agree with her, because she is my friend, but I am still utterly torn and still struggling. Thank you for calling me to speak, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I will let others who have prepared a speech take the Floor now.

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Mr Woodcock, having listened to the evidence offered in the course of the debate, voted against the Bill.

John Pugh (Southport, LD):

I am unpersuaded by the promoter of the Bill. I agonise over this issue, because death and the manner of our death should trouble us all. I do not entirely trust my own instincts on this, so I took the trouble of going to my local hospice, Queenscourt hospice, to hear from staff there what their advice was on this Bill. After all, they see death on a regular basis—daily, hourly, weekly. They oppose this Bill strongly, emphatically and definitely, and endorse the stance I shall be taking.

The thing we must recognise is that we all have a terminal disease called life. None of us get out of here alive, and some of us are nearer the door than others. It is hard to imagine how we would feel if the exact timing or manner of our death became more clear. We must admit that there are, perhaps rarely, bad deaths and troubling deaths, although, as anyone in medical practice will tell us, they are decreasing and are far less in evidence than they used to be. But the weakness of the Bill is that it provides no real solutions to the issues that concern most people and it creates a raft of other problems we do not currently have.

[...]

...this week started for most of us with the haunting picture of a single child drowned on a beach. It was just one life and it affected the whole country. The consequence that can be drawn is that, as a civilisation, we cannot be casual about life without becoming a different sort of civilisation.

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Scope

Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs, Con):

Some hon. Members... 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.

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Mark Durkan (Foyle, SDLP):

It has been suggested that relying on the [Director of Public Prosecutions'] prosecution guidance as adequate would be a dereliction of duty on our part as legislators, but let us remember that those who are proposing the Bill would still be relying on the guidance for all the cases that fall outside the scope of the Bill. If it is okay for people to rely on that guidance for cases that fall outside the scope of the Bill, why would it be wrong for those of us who oppose the Bill to rely on it as well for people in that situation?

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Faith

A number of MPs mentioned the influence of religious faith on their view of the debate. Regrettably, a not inconsiderable number of other MPs sought to dismiss arguments based on evidence and lived experience, instead seeking to characterize opposition as theological or dogmatic. Such attempts at debasing the debate were given short shrift.

Jim Shannon (Strangford, DUP)

I am proud to say as a Christian that my fundamental belief is in the intrinsic value of every human life, and I just cannot see any tangible evidence to support assisted suicide. I still find myself very much in line with the majority of Christians in so thinking. That is my personal belief, but it is only one of the reasons why I do not and cannot support the Bill on Second Reading.

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Mark Durkan (Foyle, SDLP):

I will be opposing the Bill. Some of the constituents who have written to me have suggested that I am being Church-whipped. I am no more Church-whipped in opposing this Bill's Second Reading than I was when I voted for the Second and Third Readings of the marriage equality Bill.

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Sir Edward Leigh (Gainsborough, Con; pictured):

What sort of society do we want to create? Do we want to create one in which we solve our problems by killing? I admit that my religious belief informs my view, and people could ask what right I have to impose my religious beliefs—seen in opposition to abortion or capital punishment or to war or to assisted dying or death—on them. I would at least ask them this question: "What sort of society do we want to create when we feel that we can solve problems by hastening death rather than promoting life?" What sort of society are we creating if we say that we value people who are healthy, fit, beautiful and young more than we value people who are poor, old, crippled, ill and dying? We feel that in those people there is an eternal soul waiting there—a beautiful soul that needs to be nurtured. Even if people do not share this religious belief, surely they can come to the conclusion—even as humanists with a humane point of view—that we must promote a society that respects the old, the ill and the dying and gives them every chance of life.

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Suicide & society

The theme of changing our society was approached by many speakers from many different viewpoints.

Mrs Caroline Spelman (Meriden, Con):

The heart of the issue of assisted dying goes deeper still, however—to society's attitudes to ageing, to death and to dying. Why do so many people say, "I don't want to be a burden"? In societies that revere the elderly, there is less fear among old people that they impose a strain on everyone else. One of my constituents put it like this:

"We are born into dependency, we rely on the goodwill of others even when we are in our prime, and dependency is a necessary feature of our senior years."

[...]

Research by Age UK has shown that about 500,000 elderly people are abused each year in the UK and there is a very real danger that if this Bill were to pass, many of these people could be put at further risk. As the Care Not Killing campaign has said:

"The right to die can so easily become the duty to die."

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Steve Brine (Winchester, Con):

It seems to me that we live in a world today obsessed by choice and consumerism. We want to have a career and the perfect family life. We want to shop every hour of the week. I find myself agreeing with the Bishop of Bristol, who said last month how the supporters of the Bill present it, in part, as a simple matter of individual choice with

"choice being the great God of a consumerised society."

I think he hits the nail on the head. I believe that choice creates the burden; it does not set you free. We must significantly up our game in respect of how we provide end-of-life care, rather than handing out the right in law to take a life away.

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Nick Herbert (Arundel and South Downs, Con):

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?... 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.

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Barbara Keeley (Worsley and Eccles South, Lab):

If we are to live in a society that values and cares for each individual regardless of the state of their health and disability, it is difficult to see why we should be relaxing our stance on suicide. The Not Dead Yet UK network of disabled and terminally ill people tells us that not one organisation of disabled people supports assisted suicide, and Richard Hawkes, the former CEO of Scope, has said:

"Why is it that when people who are not disabled want to commit suicide, we try to talk them out of it, but when a disabled person wants to commit suicide we focus on how we can make that possible?"

The campaign to legalise assisted suicide reinforces deep-seated beliefs that the lives of disabled people are not worth as much as other people's.

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Karl McCartney (Lincoln, Con):

Baroness Campbell has observed that for the Bill

"to pass into law would be a triumph of despair over hope. It says, don't try to make things better—that's just too difficult and, anyway, would be futile. It is far better to die now. It will be better for you, your family and society. You are defined by your diagnosis, which is also your death warrant. Society doesn't want you around any more."

Like the good baroness, I do not want to live in that kind of society, and I hope that the majority of Members do not want to do so either.

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Safeguards: coercion

Colleen Fletcher (Coventry North East, Lab):

First and foremost, I am concerned that irrespective of how robust the safeguards are perceived to be, they can never be completely effective in protecting vulnerable people against undue coercion or duress. Acts of coercion or duress are, by their very nature, exerted opaquely and in a targeted, underhand way, leaving the victim unable or unwilling to speak out for fear of what they perceive the consequences might be, particularly if they are wholly dependent for their care needs on their oppressor. In such circumstances, how are the two registered medical practitioners and the judge able to satisfy themselves that the decision to end life

"has been reached voluntarily, on an informed basis and without coercion or duress"?

Clearly, they cannot. As a result, the Bill does not adequately safeguard against the terminally ill being manipulated by those with an ulterior motive and forced into making a decision that they do not want to take or is not in their best interests.

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Andrew Bridgen (North West Leicestershire, Con):

Any Member of this House who does not consider that coercion could happen, forcing vulnerable people to take their own lives, has perhaps an over-optimistic view of the human nature of a small but significant section of our society.

I spoke to an A&E consultant in my constituency who raised concerns about his Hippocratic oath and the change in the doctor-patient relationship that the Bill could engender. He had a shocking experience when he was resuscitating an elderly lady in A&E while her relatives were sharing out her assets at the foot of the bed. When the old lady was resuscitated, he saw the look in the relatives' eyes, and he would certainly not be in favour of assisted dying legislation whereby vulnerable old people could be coerced into taking their own lives by unscrupulous or heartless relatives or beneficiaries.

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Prognosis

Mr David Jones (Clwyd West, Con):

Medical experts have pointed out that it is very difficult to ascertain whether an individual will die within three months. One is reminded of the Scottish case of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, who was convicted of the Lockerbie bombing and discharged from prison on compassionate grounds because he was not expected to survive a further three months, and that was on the evidence of highly respected oncologists. In fact, he survived a further two years and nine months. Irrespective of the merits of the release, that illustrates how difficult it is to assess how long a patient might live.

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Ramifications for healthcare

Jim Shannon (Strangford, DUP)

What type of pressure would assisted dying put on our NHS doctors and nurses, given that one person's need always has to be weighed against that of another in apportioning expenditure? I am extremely concerned that assisted dying might be suggested to families and patients to ensure a smooth and efficient running of the service. The NHS is already under enormous pressure, and patients with a poor prognosis are in great need of NHS facilities and assistance for a long period, if not for the rest of their lives...

[...]

Patients need to know that doctors have their best interests at heart, and that everything that it is physically possible to do will be done for them in their time of need.

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Jonathan Reynolds (Stalybridge and Hyde, Lab/Co-op):

There is a right to die under UK law. Any of us has the right to refuse further medical treatment in such a way as to bring our lives to a natural end. Furthermore, a person making that decision can usually obtain pain relief to ease their suffering. However, the Bill proposes a fundamental change, for the first time allowing medical practitioners to prescribe drugs that would enable the person actively to end their life. I believe that once we crossed that Rubicon, we would have radically changed our conception of life and of the rights and responsibilities of individuals and of society at large. We would have fundamentally changed the role of the medical profession and we could never truly ensure that there were sufficient safeguards to prevent abuse.

I am sure the House will appreciate that the prospect of doctors legally prescribing fatal doses of drugs causes considerable distress in my constituency, where the majority of the families of the victims of Harold Shipman reside. This proposal would for ever change the nature of the medical profession in the UK, and I note that the British Medical Association is fundamentally opposed to it.

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Ramifications for hospices

Mrs Caroline Spelman (Meriden, Con):

There is a significant risk that passing this Bill would reduce the available resources. The deputy chair of Hospice UK has suggested that such a change could threaten funding for hospices.

Mrs Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham, Con):

If the Bill goes through, it will create an enormous dilemma for our hospice movement. My own hospice, Rennie Grove Hospice Care, has written to me to say that it

"will not be involved in the provision of assisted dying to people under its care."

That could lead to a situation in which people who needed care in such a hospice might not want to go to it, which would effectively remove a choice from dying people to have the palliative care that they require.

Mrs Spelman:

My right hon. Friend demonstrates one of the dilemmas that the Bill presents.

The National Council for Palliative Care has said:

"We believe the current Assisted Dying Bill puts vulnerable people at risk, without improving access to care".

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The wrong debate

Albert Owen (Ynys Môn, Lab):

None of us has the right to say that we are more compassionate than others, whether we are for or against the Bill. We all want to see dignity in end-of-life care. That is important, and that argument has been echoed in this Chamber today. We need to turn the debate into a positive. Those of us who will never support assisted dying, assisted suicide or euthanasia and have a strong and principled view on that need to be joined by those who want to alleviate suffering, whether or not they have a different opinion on the Bill. We must channel that energy into improving palliative care. We must talk about the National Health Service as being from cradle to grave. In doing that, we have to be brave and we have to say that palliative care is patchy in this country and that young people and older people do not get the care or dignity they deserve. We must channel money and resources into training people to help in end-of-life care in the future. Our health service must merge prevention and care; social care and health must come together to help young people and those who have terminal illnesses. We must do that in a positive way.

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Colleen Fletcher (Coventry North East, Lab):

People say that we do not do death well in this country. We need to talk about it, but I do not want this Bill to be the start of that conversation.

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(Image: Parliament TV screengrab)

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