Law to allow assisted dying passes first hurdle as Parliament hears heartbreaking stories

Terminally ill Brits seeking assistance to end their lives are one step closer to obtaining their wish as a highly-disputed bill has passed its first hurdle in the House of Lords.

The second reading of the Assisted Dying Bill, was unopposed in the Lords, and is set to be scrutinised by a committee.

The bill, tabled by cross-bench peer Baroness Meacher, proposes that only terminally ill patients with full mental capacity, and are not expected to live more than six months would be eligible to apply for an assisted death.

Former MP Frank Field was one of many peers to back a law, as it was announced he is terminally ill.

The 79-year-old represented Birkenhead for Labour for almost 40 years, before forming his own party and losing the seat in the 2019 election.

Peers heard Lord Field – who campaigned against bereavement benefit cuts as chairman of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee – was unable to attend today’s debate, having spent time recently in a hospice.

Baroness Cavendish of Little Venice makes a speech at the House of Lords


UK Parliament 2021 / Roger Harris)

Cross-bench peer Baroness Meacher, who is leading the Bill, said: “Our colleague Lord Field of Birkenhead, who is dying, asked me to read out a short statement.”

The statement from Lord Field said: “I’ve just spent a period in a hospice and I’m not well enough to participate in today’s debate. If I had been, I would have spoken strongly in favour of the second reading [of the Bill].”

Lord Curry of Kirkharle was one of several peers to draw upon personal experience as he spoke against the Assisted Dying Bill.

The Cross-bench peer explained: “Eight years ago my wife and I held the hands of our daughter, aged 42, who had a learning disability, while she passed from time into eternity.

“She breathed her last while we held her hands, a very emotional and precious moment for us. Not an experience one envisages when bringing a child into the world.

“Six years before that she was very, very ill with pneumonia and other complications, and wasn’t expected to survive.”

Cross-bench peer Lord Krebs offered his support and explained how the death of his father had shaped his thinking.

Peers shared very personal stories as they debated the Assisted Dying Bill in the Lords


UK Parliament 2021 / Roger Harris)

And heartbroken Tory peer Michael Forsyth admitted he will back the bill after his dying father changed his mind.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, told BBC Radio 4: “Just before he died I went to see him and said ‘I’m so sorry, dad, you’re in this position’, and he completely took me aback by saying ‘well, you’re to blame, because you and others have consistently voted against the right to die, I would like to be relieved of this, they can’t relieve the pain and I am in this position because of folk like you.”

Critics of the Bill could seek to block it at committee stage by tabling several amendments.

Opponents included many religious leaders, who warned that it could leave vulnerable people exposed to unwanted pressure.

The Archbishop, the Most Rev Justin Welby, said that although the safeguards in the legislation were stronger than in previous attempts to change the law, they still did not go far enough.

“What we want is assisted living, not assisted dying. There is no difference between us in compassion.”

It is common for private members’ bills in the Lords to be given a second reading although it still has several stages to clear and will need to fight for time in the parliamentary schedule.

Justice minister Lord Wolfson of Tredegar said 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.

He added the Bill is an “issue of conscience” for all parliamentarians.

The topic was debated today in Parliament for the first time in six years.

Previous attempts to introduce similar laws have all been defeated.

Disabled campaigners were expected to protest outside Parliament but it was called off last night over Covid fears.

Dame Prue Leith has backed the bill and slammed critics of “scaremongering” families.

Writing in the Telegraph, she said: “Opponents to the Bill fear that grasping children will coerce dying parents to get their doctors to see them off so they can inherit.

“If someone is going to die within six months anyway, which must be the case to qualify for assistance to die, why would anyone risk prosecution to get the money a few months earlier?”

This is despite her son, Tory MP Danny Kruger campaigning against the change in law.

Mr Kruger set up the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Dying Well.

Mr Johnson is not expected to back the plans and it is unlikely to become law without government support.

Downing Street has said the Government continues to regard the issue of assisted dying as a matter of conscience for individual MPs and peers.

Tory peer Lord Dobbs said this is not a bill which demeans the disabled and it’s not about getting rid of granny


UK Parliament 2021 / Roger Harris)

“This is obviously a very emotional issue,” a No 10 spokesman said. “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.”

Earlier in the day, hundreds of protesters protested outside of Parliament in support of the Bill.

Speaking about the urgent need for reform, Humanists UK’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson stressed the inequalities of the current law which enables those with the financial means of travelling to Switzerland to avoid unnecessary suffering.

He added: “‘We’re delighted the Assisted Dying Bill has passed its Second Reading.

“This Bill is limited to adults with terminal illnesses and therefore does not go as far as we’d wish to see, which would mean covering the incurably suffering as well.

“Nonetheless, we fully support it as a step in the right direction.

“And its reception in the House of Lords today was a significant victory for the rights and choices of those in desperate need of a change in the law.”

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