Opinion from Lord Digby Jones

The Vote on Assisted Dying

Published Thursday 17 July, 2014

There are certain issues in our Society of a non-economic or foreign policy nature that conjure up strongly held views for and against, that are often so contentious that people can see and understand (if not agree with) both sides of the argument, that put Governments-of-the-day in a "can't win" position from which they usually shy away and abrogate responsibility to the Court of Public Opinion at worst and the lottery that is a Private Members' Bill at best. Capital Punishment is one, fox hunting another.

One such is the whole issue of Assisted Dying. Whether the Law of the Land (as opposed to "custom" or "a blind eye here and a nod there") should recognise and allow someone to help another human being end his or her life. There are good arguments on both sides; as a non-aligned, cross-bench Member of the House of Lords my mail bag is currently full of good, heart-wrenching letters putting forward the case for or against.

Her Majesty's Government has left it to a private member's initiative to bring forward a Bill to be debated and either rejected or passed, rather than put the full force of Government momentum and majority behind any proposed legislation. It is such an emotional and contentious issue that it has found no place in the last legislative programme before the General Election next year, but space has been made available in Parliamentary scheduling to allow debate and possible legislation outwith the force of the whips. There will be a free vote and the journey starts in mid-July with the first hearing of Lord Falconer's Bill which proposes that the Law of our Country formally recognise Assisted Dying.

If the excellent letters, both for and against, that I have received on the subject are representative of the mood or wish of the Country then the law should be changed by a majority of two or three to one. Those against believe that a life is not, in any circumstances ever for another human being to take away; some fear that regardless of proper safeguards being in place, irresistible pressure will bear down on the elderly from unscrupulous relatives anxious to inherit; some (especially doctors) worry about the "who" and the "when" of the act itself.

The cause of legally allowing it for the first time is supported by people who have watched loved ones suffer dreadfully and experience a painful and/or humiliating death because of the current law ("they wouldn't let a dog suffer like that" is a common phrase). Other arguments on this side of the debate include the fact that legislating would merely formally recognise the de facto situation that currently exists where we are all just a one-way ticket away from Dignitas in Switzerland anyway. Some observe that a getting-older and larger population means that the NHS will just not be able to cope with keeping people alive for an extra week or so, especially when such patients can in that interval often be totally and terminally incapacitated. One doctor told me that he would agree with the law changing provided no one ever received any remuneration or other reward for providing such assistance. Everyone in favour stipulates that proper and rigorous safeguards must be in place, monitored and enforced. One excellent letter observed that this was certainly not any form of enforced euthanasia; we are talking "voluntary" here.

In my time in the Lords, I consider it such a privilege to participate in the making of laws that govern what we all do; how we live together in Society is what law is all about but this one is about how we die. I guess the act of dying is the last act of living. When I vote on it will I feel I am "playing God" as one lady put it in her letter to me? How will I vote?

Personal experience will be the final influencer at the last. Indeed, it is because of their varied and many experiences of different walks of life that the Peers of the Realm enrich the legislative process and make such a studied contribution to the Nation.

I have watched some close to me endure humiliation and pain in their last weeks on earth. I consider it so wrong that someone whom it is felt cannot be "helped on their way" can be starved to death over some days until dehydration slowly kills them. The "if ever I get like that, please take me out and shoot me" observation by many a fit, powerfully-minded, totally lucid older person should be listened to and acted upon, if not literally!

I feel the burden of voting on this in the Lords more keenly than virtually any other issue that has come before us. But vote I shall and it will be to bring the Law of the Land into the 21st Century, to reflect the majority of the views expressed to me, to ensure so much pain and suffering can be (and only if so desired) avoided.

........and I guess there is an element of selfishness in all this, since when my time comes I won't want to hang about and I don't want anyone who, out of love or a sense of caring or both, helps me achieve my desire getting into any trouble.