English assisted suicide bill not put to vote in House of Lords

Elderly_patient_in_hospice_Credit_Photographeeeu__Shutterstock_1.jpg Credit: Photographee.eu / Shutterstock.

After seven hours of debate and notable opposition in the House of Lords on Friday, the sponsor of a bill that would legalize assisted suicide in England and Wales chose not to take the bill to a vote.

“It is a great outcome that this Bill was not taken to a vote today. The Bill is unlikely to be given time in Parliament to be debated in the House of Commons and become law, given that it is not supported by the Government,” Catherine Robinson, spokesperson for Right To Life UK, commented Oct. 22 shortly after the Second Reading of the Assisted Dying Bill tabled by Baroness Meacher. 

The bill would permit assisted suicide for terminally ill adults with fewer than six months to live, subject to the approval of two doctors and a high court judge.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, officer of the All Party Parliamentary Group for Dying Well, commented that “Peers have today demonstrated a powerful opposition to this bill. Many vulnerable people are unaware of the dangers in going down this road, as this bill has hidden dangers, unsafe qualifying criteria, and potentially opens the door to even wider legislation.”

“Instead, the focus should be on pressing the Government to do more to ensure good palliative and end-of-life care for everyone, everywhere in this country,” Baroness Finlay, a professor palliative medicine, added.

More than 60 peers spoke against the bill during the debate.

Justin Welby, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, said that “No amount of regulation can make a relative kinder or a doctor infallible; No amount of reassurance can make a vulnerable or disabled person feel equally safe, equally valued if the law is changed in this way”.

“It does not serve compassion if, by granting the wishes of one closest to me, I expose others to danger; It does not serve dignity if, by granting the wishes of one closest to me, I devalue the status and safety of others,” Welby continued.

Lord Alton noted that “Notwithstanding the good intentions of those who produce these recurring bills, the same unanswered questions about the risks to vulnerable people… and the lack of safeguards remain and they remain unanswered”.

He added, “In truth, what are described as safeguards are simply a wish list for what its sponsors hope would happen in an ideal world”.

“It would be profoundly irresponsible to enact legislation without knowing how many putative safeguards might work. Asking us to do otherwise is like asking Parliament to sign a blank cheque,” he said.

Lord Winston called ‘assisted dying’ an inappropriate euphemism, and Lord Hunt of Kings Heath noted his concern “about the unintended consequences of people feeling pressurised into ending their own lives, either because of fear that they might be a burden or because relatives might seek to gain through the accelerated death of a relative”.

Lord Curry of Kirkharle said that “I fear that this country will become a society that terminates the lives of its old people, its sick and disabled people, because they fear they are being a burden to their loved ones and because of the time and the cost of their care.”

Baroness Campbell of Surbiton, founder of Not Dead Yet UK, commented that the bill “would alter society’s view of those in vulnerable circumstances by signalling that assisted suicide is something that they might or ought to consider”.

“Disabled people with terminal conditions or progressive conditions like mine are alarmed by the misleading narrative of autonomy and choice,” she said, and “We must not abandon those who can benefit from high-quality health and social care to the desperate temptation of assisted suicide in the guise of a compassionate choice.”

She has also said that were the bill passed, it “would run counter to our duty to protect those in the most vulnerable situations, and would exacerbate their fears, through insidious pressure, of being regarded as an expendable burden. As has happened elsewhere, the Bill would doubtless be extended.”

“No major disability rights group in the UK supports legalising assisted suicide. What they support is immediate and sustained improvement in their care. Now is not the time to abandon them to the desperate temptation of an assisted suicide under the guise of compassion.”

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Multiple prominent, public demonstrations of opposition to the bill occurred this week ahead of its second reading.

A group of some 1,700 British doctors wrote to the UK Health Secretary saying they would not participate in assisted suicide were it legalized.

“The shift from preserving life to taking life is enormous and should not be minimised...Some patients may never consider assisted suicide unless it was suggested to them. The cruel irony of this path is that legislation introduced with the good intention of enhancing patient choice will diminish the choices of the most vulnerable,” the letter read.

And Cardinal Vincent Nichols of Westminster, along with Justin Welby, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, and Ephraim Mirvis, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, recently wrote a joint letter to peers “to express our profound disquiet at the provisions of the ‘Assisted Dying’ Bill currently in the House of Lords.”

Assisted suicide is illegal in England and Wales, and doctors who assist a suicide can be jailed up to 14 years under the Suicide Act 1961. In 2015 the British parliament rejected a bill that would have legalized assisted suicide for patients with a terminal diagnosis, by a vote of 330 to 118. Parliament has consistently rejected efforts to change the law.

In September 2020 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith reaffirmed the Church’s perennial teaching on the sinfulness of euthanasia and assisted suicide.

The trade union for doctors in the United Kingdom, as of September, is no longer officially opposed to the legalization of assisted suicide. The British Medical Association has adopted a “neutral” stance on the issue, following a narrow vote at its annual representative meeting. The body had been opposed to assisted suicide since 2006.

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