Marathon debate sees terminally ill peer urge relaxation of assisted dying laws
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A terminally ill peer has led calls to relax assisted dying laws, as fresh proposals split the House of Lords during a marathon eight-hour debate.
Frank Field, 79, has just spent time in a hospice and his illness meant he was unable to join more than 130 other speakers to consider the Assisted Dying Bill.
But the former minister, known as Lord Field of Birkenhead, said the experiences of an MP friend dying of cancer had led him to change his mind and back a law change.
The Bill, tabled by independent peer Baroness Meacher, would give patients of sound mind, with six months or less left to live, the right to die by taking life-ending medication.
It received an unopposed second reading, as is convention for private members’ bills in the upper house, and will undergo further scrutiny at a later stage.
While many peers spoke against the proposals, plans to wreck the Bill traditionally come to the fore at committee and report.
Campaigners say a change in the law would give those at the end of their lives greater control over how and when they die.
Opponents, including many religious leaders, say it could leave vulnerable people exposed to unwanted pressure.
Opening the debate, Lady Meacher said: “Our colleague Lord Field of Birkenhead, who is dying, asked me to read out a short statement.”
Peers heard Lord Field said: “I’ve just spent a short period in a hospice and I’m not well enough to participate in today’s debate. If I had been, I’d have spoken strongly in favour of the second reading.
“I changed my mind on assisted dying when an MP friend dying of cancer wanted to die early before the full horror effects set in, but was denied this opportunity.
“A major argument against the Bill is unfounded. It is thought by some the culture would change and that people would be pressured into ending their lives.
“The number of assisted deaths in the US and Australia remains very low, under 1%, and a former supreme court judge of Victoria, Australia, about pressure from relatives, said it just hasn’t been an issue. I hope the House will today vote for the Assisted Dying Bill.”
Lord Field took his seat in the upper chamber in October 2020 after being elected 10 times to represent Birkenhead between 1979 and 2019.
He served as welfare reform minister in Tony Blair’s first government in 1997 and went on to chair the Work and Pensions Select Committee.
He later resigned the Labour whip over antisemitism and “nastiness” in the party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
Currently, those who are judged to have assisted the suicide or attempted suicide of another person can be jailed for up to 14 years.
Under the terms of the bill, the person wanting to end their life would have to sign a declaration approved by two doctors, which is signed off by the High Court.
Lady Meacher urged peers to “drag” assisted dying legislation in England and Wales “out of the 1960s and into the present day”.
She said the current law “turns compassionate friends and family into criminals”, adding it “causes thousands of dying people” to attempt to take their own lives alone in order to protect their relatives.
But the proposals split the House, with Conservative Lord Farmer saying: “This Bill facilitates death without reference to those most impacted by it. It is an atheist’s bill, denying God and denying eternity.”
Crossbench peer Baroness O’Loan added the Bill will change the role of medical professionals from “caregivers” into “killers” while the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Rev Justin Welby, said there was “unanimity” on the benches of the bishops that the law on assisted dying “does not need to be changed”.
He said the Bill is “unsafe”, adding: “It does not serve compassion if by granting the wishes of one closest to me, I expose others to danger and it does not serve dignity if in granting the wishes of one closest to me, I devalue the status and safety of others.”
We treat dogs better than we treat human beings
Several peers recalled their personal experiences, with Conservative Baroness Meyer detailing the suffering of her father in his final days.
She said: “We treat dogs better than we treat human beings. This is not normal.”
Crossbench peer Lord Ramsbotham said his wife “took her life recently after an horrendous year” in which she was misdiagnosed as having an aggressive brain tumour.
He said: “She expressed a wish to die several times, even to doctors, finding the frustration hard to bear. This setback proved too much even for her and she took an overdose of sleeping pills, much to the sorrow of her family and friends. I therefore strongly support the Bill.”
Downing Street has said the Government continues to regard the issue of assisted dying as a matter of conscience for individual MPs and peers.
“This is obviously a very emotional issue,” a No 10 spokesman told reporters at a daily briefing for political journalists at Westminster.
“The Government’s position on assisted dying has not changed. This is a matter for individual conscience. Any change in the law is for Parliament to decide rather than Government policy.”
Justice minister Lord Wolfson of Tredegar added the Government was adopting a position of “neutrality” for the Bill, adding it would “not stand in the way” should Parliament ultimately approve the proposed reforms.