Assisted Dying Bill debate - My stance

Delivered to the House of Commons by Rt. Hon. Caroline Spelman

As Second Church Estates Commissioner I am tasked by Her Majesty the Queen with being the voice of the established church in Parliament and have the privilege to represent majority views of its members in addition to the views of my constituents in Meriden.  Please find below a copy of my speech to the House of Commons on the Assisted Dying Bill

Original script, may differ from delivered version

Historically, our society has abhorred suicide but more recently the plight of those who choose to go abroad to end their lives has attracted more and more support. The argument about the sanctity of life is harder to make in an increasingly secular society.  That life is a gift from God with all it entails, including pain and suffering, and that it is not for us to bring to an end, is perceived to be at odds with the prevailing view of our rights, including a supposed right to end our own lives. 

Naturally none of us likes the idea that our death will be painful and difficult.  We need to do more to reassure people that it doesn't have to be.  Our hospices offer outstanding help and support to the dying and their families. The recently opened Marie Curie hospice in Solihull is a brilliant example of this.  It is possible with sheer humanity to make dying better. Still, 50% of us will die in hospital when many don't wish to.  And a recent report on end-of-life care in hospitals shows gaps in medical training to provide the care which is needed. There is a significant risk that passing this Bill would reduce resources for improving palliative care, with the Deputy Chair of Hospices UK raising concerns that the Bill could threaten funding for hospices. The National Council for Palliative Care have said: “we believe the current Assisted Dying Bill puts vulnerable people at risk, without improving access to care”.

But, I think the heart of the issue of assisted dying goes deeper still, to society's attitudes to ageing, death and dying. Why is it that so many elderly people say "I don't want to be a burden"? In societies which 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.”

The Archbishop of Canterbury has said that this Bill would lead Britain to cross “a fundamental legal and ethical Rubicon”. Respect for life underpins our criminal and human rights laws, as well as the Hippocratic Oath taken by all of our doctors, to promote life. This Bill would be a major shift in these principles, fundamentally changing the relationship of a doctor to their patient. It would not just legitimise suicide, but promote the participation of others in it.

Even if we consider assisted dying to be acceptable in some circumstances, the law should not be changed. Assisted dying should be the absolute exception not the rule and, in practice, the law as it stands has seldom been used to convict anyone for assisting someone else to die. Strong laws protect vulnerable people.  The existing law protects the elderly, the disabled, and those who might otherwise feel pressured to die. It is very difficult to prove definitively that someone had not been coerced. As the Care Not Killing campaign have said, “the right to die can so easily become the duty to die”. Research by AgeUK has shown that around 500,000 elderly people are abused each year in the UK, mostly by family members.  A change in the assisted dying laws could put many of these people at further risk. An opinion survey commissioned by disabled charity Scope last year showed that the majority of disabled people also fear change to the assisted dying law.

These reasons are surely why most doctors are against this Bill. Only one in 7 doctors would agree to assist a suicide, so the chances are the doctor would not be known to the patient or the family which is undesirable.

This is also a Bill without any detailed upfront safeguards.  It outlines a process, but does not give enough detail about how it will work.  The so-called “safeguards” are left to codes of practice, in clause 8, which “may” be issued by the Secretary of State. And “may” is not strong enough.

The first so-called “safeguard” is that the Bill only applies in the case of a terminally ill adult with less than six months to live [clause 1(1) and 2(1)(b)].  But it is impossible to be entirely sure someone will die within six months.

Clause 1(2)(a) suggests the process must be entirely voluntary and initiated by a patient. However, if assisted dying becomes regarded as a medical treatment, it is likely that a doctor would be under a positive obligation to suggest it to patients.

I am not without compassion for the suffering of those who are dying and their families.  I have lost both my parents and one suffered in death.  I have sat with good friends slipping away in a hospice.  I have wept over friends prematurely departing this life.  But that is part of life. Grief is made worse by missing the parting.  Rights are often conflicting: parents who don't want to be a burden but children who don't want to be deprived of a parent prematurely. But the safety of the law which protects the vulnerable, as it does now, supersedes the risks associated with changing it to make early death easier.  As the letter from faith leaders put it, “for very many people… the natural processes of dying, allied with good palliative care, enable them and their families to experience precious moments of love, care, reconciliation and even hope; processes that ought not to be truncated.”