The aftermath of the Joffe Bill


Universe Column for May 21st 2006

by David Alton

Last week’s House of Lords debate on the Joffe Bill was a remarkable occasion.  90 Peers spoke in a debate which lasted for more than seven hours and the arguments for and against assisted suicide and euthanasia were finally laid bare. A significant majority of speakers opposed the Bill and, when the vote came, 100 peers vote for the Bill and 140 voted against.

Although the debate was characterised by powerful and learned contributions from both sides, from time to time some virulent anti-religious sentiment broke out, and this was very evident in the angry interviews which followed in the media after the vote was taken.

Some extraordinary and fabricated claims were made about fabulous sums of money being spent by church supported groups opposed to Lord Joffe. I wistfully thought to myself, if only this was true!

It was regularly suggested that religious believers had no right to “impose” their views. But in a democracy no-one can impose – you simply win or lose the argument, win or lose the vote.

In any case, as one of the key opponents of the Bill, Lord Carlile QC made it abundantly clear, he has no religious faith – while supporters of the Bill included the former Methodist Moderator, Baroness Richardson and several other Christians. It is true that the Anglican and Catholic bishops were united with the Chief Rabbi in their opposition to the Bill, but even if the Anglican bishops had been absent from the vote, the Bill would still have been defeated.

The Catholic press was particularly singled out for criticism during the debate by Lord Joffe and his supporters. This simply underlined for me the importance of newspapers like The Universe providing an alternative to a secular media which often distorts and frequently omits perfectly legitimate counter arguments.

Anyone who listened to the speeches of disabled peers like Baroness (Nicky) Chapman, Baroness (Sue) Masham, and Baroness (Rosie) Wilkins would have realised that one of the principal reasons why Lord Joffe’s Bill had to be defeated had been virtually ignored by the secular media. Baroness Chapman – who has endured over 600 fractured to her tiny body – said “I dread to thinks what kind of decisions I might have made if a Bill like this had been passed previously.”

From her wheelchair Baroness Wilkins told the House: “This is a dangerous Bill. It only masquerades as a modest Bill. If it were to succeed it would remove the cornerstone of our law that protects us when we are at our most vulnerable.”

Other speakers, including the doughy Baroness (Ilora) Finlay – professor of palliative medicine at Cardiff – reminded the House that more than 95%of  palliative care doctors opposed a change in the law – as do the Royal Colleges of Nurses, Physicians and Psychiatrists. Are all of these to be characterised as religious bigots too?

In reality, the real intolerance and bigotry is to be found in the new forms of liberalism that broker no opposition to their elitism. They are characterised by their determination to impose their own ideologies.

The front-bench spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, Baroness (Sue) Barker, said that peers would by given a free vote but that Lord Joffe’s Bill was in line with their policy on euthanasia. The Government Minister, Lord Warner claimed that the Government would be “neutral” but listening to his speech, you could have fooled me. When he said that the Government would not oppose the Second Reading of the Bill it gave the game away. In 1967 Abortion became legal when that Labour Government also pleaded “neutrality” while giving the Bill every assistance and every bit of time it needed.

Lord Warner will have been discomforted by the speech of a former Minister, Baroness (Liz) Symonds of Vernham Dean – perhaps the finest contribution of all in an outstanding debate – who movingly recounted how she had nursed a man in his thirties who had virulent leukaemia and had been in excruciating pain for many weeks. During the chemotherapy he lost the will to live. “Fourteen years later”, she said, “he is thriving. I am so glad Lord Joffe’s Bill was not on the statute books.”

Many personal stories were told during the debate and inevitably our tragedies shape out thinking.  I told the House that I vividly recall how, as a young child, the effect of the suicide of an uncle had far reaching repercussions on his young family, brothers and parents – repercussions that continue to this day. But they also have repercussions on society as a whole.

The truth of this was illustrated by the story of David Williams, which he recently told in The Observer. If, 14 years ago, he had the assisted suicide which he sought, his children now would be orphans.  Often, depression, and the mood altering effect of drugs which are administered to the sick, may lead to decisions which can have calamitous and irreversible consequences.

Making assisted suicide and euthanasia normative would simply have a dramatically negative effect on society as a whole.

Lord Joffe and many other speakers called in their aid the assisted dying laws which have been enacted in the U.S. State of Oregon.  If this was such a go model why is it that after careful  assessment, no other US State has enacted it?

This dangerous Bill replicates the worst features of Oregon’s laws and yet were supposed to be reassured by that.

In Oregon, most doctors won’t have anything to do with assisted suicide.  So people go ‘doctor shopping’ to the local euthanasia organisation, which calls itself Compassion in Dying. They find a compliant doctor to prescribe, who does not have to be present when the drugs are taken.  But someone from that organisation is often there. If that is not subtle coercion to continue I don’t know what is.  Surely there should be no role for a pro-euthanasia organisation acting as an intermediary.

The President of Oregon’s Compassion in Dying claims they are “stewards of the law”.

But how can it be safe for an interested pressure group to appoint itself as an intermediary?

Peers pointed to these  remarkably laissez faire arrangements.  Some patients have the drugs stored away at home for over a year. And their Health Department admit they cannot detect illegal barbiturate prescriptions.

Oregon’s so-called “Death with Dignity” Act has not supported improvements in palliative care.  Their own University researchers show reported increases in pain or distress in dying patients since 1996, not less. So much for “a good death.”

As for allowing “death with dignity”, the reverse is the case.

Oregon’s experience, outlined in the Report, ‘Dying in America Today’,  gives low marks to many states including Oregon,  which was rated “C” in seven categories — including deaths at home, and hospices; a “D” rating in state pain policies, and, an “E” rating in hospitals with hospice.  Specialist palliative care just does not exist there. Should that have been a model for the UK?

Last week’s debate was a notable victory for the pro-life cause in Britain. It was a battle won but  Lord Joffe’s supporters have made it clear that they intend to wage a war of attrition. They have said that  they will go on and on until they succeed in changing the law. This will demand ever more vigilance.

If you were one of those who responded to the calls to write to peers and MPs, thank you. But in the defence of the vulnerable and the weak, and in solidarity with the doctors and nurses and the palliative care movement,  we too must be prepared to rouse ourselves again and again.