Lord Joffe, who is sponsoring the new Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill that would allow assisted suicide, witnessed the arguments in favour of such a change in the law crushingly defeated at a major public debate this week. The vote, on a show of hands of the 400 people present, was about 10 to one against his Bill.
A distinguished line up of speakers represented Care NOT Killing, an alliance of 28 organisations promoting palliative care and opposing euthanasia, and Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society).
The debate, at the Middle Temple Hall in London, was chaired by High Court Judge Mr Justice Hedley. Speaking for the Bill was Philip Havers QC, who acted in two of the most important recent cases relating to the right to die: Pretty -v- UK (House of Lords and European Court of Human Rights and Ms B -v- A NHS Hospital Trust). He was supported by Dr Margaret Branthwaite MD, FRCP, a barrister who was formerly a Consultant at the Royal Brompton Hospital.
Opposing them were Lord Brennan QC who was appointed a High Court Judge in 1994 and has chaired the General Council of the Bar since 1999. He was supported by Dr Rob George MA, MD, FRCP, a Consultant in Palliative Medicine and a Senior Lecturer in Bioethics and the Philosophy of Medicine.
Brian Pretty, husband of Diane Pretty, and Sophie Turner, daughter of Dr Anne Turner, spoke emotively about their experiences of loved ones seeking assisted suicide, but the most dramatic point of the evening came when Gill Gerhardi and Gerald Hildreth, both severely disabled, had the floor. They spoke firmly and passionately about their desire for 'assisted living', and the fear they felt of being coerced into choosing ' the right to die' so as not be a burden on others.
Present amongst the audience were several Parliamentarians, including Baroness Finlay as well as Lord Joffe. Both peers spoke of their experience of having served on the Select Committee, which reviewed the Bill during the last parliamentary session, though they came to very different conclusions. Many leading barristers and doctors were also present, ably giving reasoned and clear arguments to support their views.
The debate, organised by The Lawyers' Christian Fellowship, was described by Lord Brennan as 'just the beginning' of engaging with the issues at a deeper level in order to truly gauge what society thinks on the matter. Several members of the audience had already drawn attention to the conclusions of the Lords Select Committee report regarding the lack of reliability of public opinion polls to date.
Peter Saunders of Care Not Killing commented: “The Care NOT Killing alliance welcomes what we hope to be the first of many serious debates on assisted dying. It is essential that the public is properly informed about these issues so that they can come to a well-considered view, rather than being influenced purely by high profile cases and media soundbites.'