Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill secured a landmark victory on Friday, as it returned to the House of Lords for its second day of Committee Stage.
The morning featured a debate on a series of amendments which sought to change the terminology around the Bill, namely that a dying person who wants to control the manner and timing of their death is actually ‘suicidal’. Among the peers who spoke was Lord Cashman who compared his own suicidal thoughts to his husband who, dying from cancer, wanted to end his suffering. He underlined that the two were not alike, and that someone with a terminal illness who wants to end their suffering a few weeks or days before their inevitable death should not be labelled as suicidal.
Opponents to the Bill, who wanted this change, then called a vote – the first since the Assisted Dying Bill was introduced in the House of Lords. In effect, this was a proxy vote on whether peers supported the principle of assisted dying as the amendment was a means to show discontent with the basic proposition.
Supportive peers defeated the amendment by a huge majority, with the final result 106 – 179. This was an incredibly significant and symbolic victory for our campaign; the first vote in the House of Lords on an Assisted Dying Bill in nine years was one of support, by a huge margin. When peers debated Lord Joffe’s Bill in 2006 59% of the House of Lords opposed the Bill, now Lord Falconer’s Bill has received the support of almost two-thirds of the House of Lords.
This success was repeated again in the second vote called by Lord Carlile on his attempt to restrict doctors who are able to consult with a patient. The amendment was defeated 61-119.
What does this mean for the Bill and the assisted dying campaign?
The Bill was never going to become law this parliament, having been tabled less than a year before the public go to the polls, but Friday has demonstrated that the majority are for it in the Lords, to add to the overwhelming public support.
The progress of Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill has sent a clear signal to Parliament that not only should they act, but that they can do so with success. During Second Reading peers decided to pass the Bill unopposed, whereas the last Bill to get to this stage was voted out. During the first day of Committee there was solid consensus to approve Lord Pannick’s amendment for judicial oversight, instead of Lord Carlile’s wrecking amendment involving the courts. In fact Lord Pannick wanted to demonstrate the will of Parliament by calling a vote on this matter, but opponent after opponent stood up and ‘begged’ him not to. This is why Friday’s events are so important. Two votes were called, by peers opposed to assisted dying in principle, in an attempt to destroy the hard work that has been put into this legislation over the last few years. Their attempts were overwhelmingly rejected.
Opponents must be seriously regretting putting these issues to a vote.
Unfortunately both the Bill and the people it seeks to help share a similar predicament – a lack of time. The current outdated law remains cruel. Jane Stephen, who is dying of aggressive bile duct cancer and has approximately six weeks to live, said on Friday:
I would give absolutely anything I have to live to see my children grow up, and to share the retirement I had dreamed of with my husband. I do not want to die, but I have no choice. I have only a month or so left. I would have so welcomed the option of Assisted Dying. Then I could die when I wanted, at a time and place of my choosing, with dignity.
There is no reason why both sides working in good faith could not continue to debate the detailed provisions of the Bill – reaching consensus on the Lord’s stages of the Bill. If no more time is allotted before the General Election then it is crucial that the Bill is introduced into the new Parliament as soon as possible. As we have seen with many other socially progressive and so called ‘controversial’ laws, the path may be difficult and slow at times, but as soon as a consensus is built, change is inevitable. The small but vocal minority of people inside the House – who will do anything to deny people choice at the end of life – know that they can only delay, not stop, this change.
The public overwhelmingly supports a change in the law on assisted dying. After three days in the House of Lords, it is now clearly dawning on parliamentarians that dying people’s wishes can no longer be ignored.