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Assisted Dying Bill progresses with majority of speakers in favour; Lord Field, Baroness Davidson among Peers declaring change of mind on issue

Dignity in Dying

5 min read Partner content
  • Lord Field, who revealed terminal diagnosis, Baroness Davidson, making maiden speech today, Lord Forsyth, Baroness Warsi, Lord Hogan-Howe, Baroness Symons, Lord Lancaster among those stating new support for assisted dying law this week
  • Baroness Meacher, who proposed Bill, reveals today she broke law to help dying friend
  • Supporters include representatives from judiciary, police and religion
  • Assisted Dying Bill passes unopposed to Committee Stage for first time in 7 years

The Assisted Dying Bill passed unopposed today (Friday 22 October 2021) following its Second Reading debate in the House of Lords, with high profile Peers revealing a dramatic shift in views.

Former MP Lord Field revealed today that he is terminally ill and now supports the legalisation of assisted dying, having previously voted against, in words read out by close friend and proposer of the Bill, Baroness Meacher:

“I’ve just spent a period of time in a hospice… if I had been [able to participate in today’s debate] I’d have spoken strongly in favour of the Second Reading. I changed my mind on assisted dying when an MP friend was dying of cancer and wanted to die early before the full horror effects set in, but was denied this opportunity.”

Baroness Davidson, former leader of the Scottish Conservatives, used her maiden speech today to support the Bill, after voting against in the Scottish Parliament in 2015.

Lord Forsyth (former Conservative cabinet member), Baroness Warsi (former co-chairwoman of the Conservative Party and senior minister for Faith), Lord Hogan-Howe (former Met Commissioner), Baroness Symons (former Labour cabinet member and trade unionist), and Lord Lancaster (former Conservative minister) have also declared their change of mind on assisted dying this week, having previously voted or spoken against legislation.

There was strong support among the Law Lords, including Lord Neuberger, Lord Mance, Lord Etherton and Lord Brown, and among former police chiefs – Lord Blair, as well as Lord Hogan-Howe. Several Peers of faith spoke in support of the Bill including Lord Carey (former Archbishop of Canterbury), Lord Leigh and Lord O’Donnell.

Of the 133 speakers, not one stated that their view had shifted from support to opposition.

Baroness Meacher, crossbench peer and chairwoman of Dignity in Dying, also revealed in The Times today that she had broken the law to help a dying friend make arrangements for an assisted death in Switzerland, before they decided the journey would be too traumatic. She said, “Like many families across the country, I was motivated purely by compassion. But in the eyes of the law, my acts made me a criminal.”

Following an eight hour debate, the Assisted Dying Bill progressed unopposed to Committee stage today. The legislation is based on a bill tabled by Lord Falconer in 2014, which was supported by Peers at Second Reading. Two opposition amendments were defeated by large margins at Committee Stage, however the Bill was not able to progress further due to the end of the session prior to the 2015 General Election. The bill is modelled on legislation that has been in place in Oregon, USA for over 23 years, since adopted by nine other American states plus the District of Columbia, five Australian states and New Zealand.

Commenting after the vote, Baroness Meacher said,

“It was powerful to see so many Peers from all sides of the House united in support of my Bill, and queuing up to speak in favour. The House of Lords clearly recognises that it is time to reform our outdated laws, as do the overwhelming majority of the British public. That strength of feeling was demonstrated by the huge gathering of supporters outside the House.

“This issue is not going away. Change is now inevitable, with more countries around the world bringing in assisted dying laws and none repealing them. Momentum is building across the British Isles, with a consultation on a Scottish Assisted Dying Bill underway and the States of Jersey due to debate proposals next month. It is only a matter of time before Parliament catches up with public opinion and does the right thing.”

Alison Pickard, a former nurse who now lives with terminal motor neurone disease, said:

“It is truly heartening to see Parliament listening to people like me, who have first-hand experience of the reality of the current law. I do not want to die, but I am dying. I cannot change the final destination, but to influence the journey would provide huge reassurance and peace of mind to me and my family.

“I shouldn’t have to choose between travelling hundreds of miles to Switzerland, putting my loved ones at risk of prosecution for helping me, or taking matters into my own hands at home with no guidance at all. I simply want the ability to die peacefully on my own terms, with my family around me, in my own home. This Assisted Dying Bill would give me that assurance. It cannot be passed soon enough.”  

Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying said,

“Mounting evidence is proving the ban on assisted dying to be uncompassionate, unequal and deeply unsafe. As evidenced in so many speeches today, none of us are protected from the suffering it can cause, including Peers and their loved ones. We are pleased that attempts to frustrate this debate and wilfully mischaracterise what this Bill calls for were rightly withdrawn.

“This Assisted Dying Bill would bring much-needed choice, compassion and protection to terminally ill people. It would protect families from making the impossible choice between breaking the law or watching a loved one suffer. It would enable healthcare professionals to offer the full range of options their patients want. It would finally bring this 60-year-old law into the 21st century, making the UK a world-leader on end-of-life choice.”

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