An 11th hour bid to legalise assisted suicide failed in the House of Lords last night after the amendment was withdrawn.
Lord Alderdice tabled his amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill last week.
It would have allowed the assisted suicide of people with an incurable illness provided they had a signed certificate from a coroner confirming that they had a “free and settled” wish to die.
But critics dubbed it “euthanasia on demand”.
Peers pointed out that two previous attempts to legalise assisted suicide had been rejected in the House already.
Baroness O ‘Cathain, speaking in the debate, said this proved the House had “little appetite for the issue”.
She added: “Nobody is thinking about the devastating effect these debates have had on those who have had the ghastly diagnosis that their illness is terminal.”
The Baroness spoke highly of the hospice movement, asserting that there is an alternative to suicide and that it should be much more available to all.
She added: “We must work towards that, but, in the mean time, please let us stop condoning, exulting and encouraging assisted suicide.”
Lady O ‘Cathain told Peers of one of her closest friends who had been diagnosed with a terminal illness.
She said her friend “asked only one question: ‘Can you help me get to Switzerland?'”, where assisted suicide is legal.
Lady O ‘Cathain said: “I had to say no, which was very difficult. I felt truly responsible to come up with an alternative.”
But she shared with the House the “amazing and encouraging period of experiencing the wonderful, caring and supporting characteristics of the services that are available.”
She said the hospice movement offered “love, respite and the experience of feeling safe”.
She added: “Let us face it, the nearest and dearest of people who face this diagnosis are not necessarily the people who can deal with it best. The demands on them in emotional terms are absolutely awful, which I know from family experience.”
Lady O ‘Cathain said her friend “felt safe in the hospice and, most of all, she was overwhelmed by the total dedication of the loving, caring and encouraging hospice workers.”
“She died peacefully and accepted that she was going to meet her Maker.
“If she had gone to Switzerland, would she have had that loving, caring end? I do not need to answer that”, she added.
Baroness Finlay of Llandaff said: “The amendment is so flawed that it seems to be euthanasia on demand masquerading behind a sanitising cloak of assisted suicide”.
Lord Tebbit said in his view “the law is working perfectly well”.
He said the current law acts as a deterrent for many who consider assisting suicide but, he added, more importantly “it has also deterred those who might have exerted pressure on a weak, ill and vulnerable person from whose death they might profit”.
Lord Alderdice’s amendment aimed to create an exception to the offence of assisting suicide so long as the person receiving assistance was ill and had prior certification from a coroner stating that they had a “free and settled wish” to die.
Campaigners opposed to assisted suicide criticised the wording, pointing out that it would apply to anyone suffering a “confirmed, incurable and disabling illness” even if the illness was not terminal.
And while the Falconer amendment applied to overseas travel to jurisdictions where assisted suicide is legal, Lord Alderdice’s proposal would have permitted assisted suicide within the UK.
“You just don’t know what will happen”
In his book Against Physician Assisted Suicide, Dr David Jeffrey tells the story of a former army instructor who was being treated for terminal cancer and was determined to commit suicide.
After a discussion with the doctor, it emerged that he was missing the Army, and was subsequently taken to watch a passing-out parade of young recruits, where a party had been arranged in his honour.
“His life was transformed,” Dr Jeffrey said. “He had a purpose and his demeanour completely changed. He died two weeks later, comfortably. People’s lives always have that potential. Even in the midst of suffering there can be change. “You just don’t know what will happen.”
“A different life”
The Times reported the story of Matt Hampson, a former rugby player who was paralysed from the neck down during training and now requires a ventilator to breathe.
With the help of carers and a custom-built house, he has been able to set up a website, is writing an autobiography and is the patron of a charity for disabled children called Special Effects.
He says: “I don’t live a bad life, I live a different life. I use my brain more than my brawn now. It has helped me become a more rounded person. I think about things more.
“I’ve had to grow up quite a bit and do things that most 23-year-olds don’t do.”
“I’m grateful I wasn’t allowed to end it all!”
Alison Davis is National Co-ordinator of No Less Human. She was born with severe spina bifida, and is dependent on a wheelchair. She is often in extreme pain for hours at a time. She says that for many years she wanted to “end it all”.
“If euthanasia had been legal, I would certainly have requested it and I wouldn’t be here now,” she says.
But after several serious suicide attempts, blocked by the intervention of Alison’s friends, she began to change her mind.
Alison met the disabled children she had been sponsoring through a charity. The experience led her to think, for the first time in over ten years, “I think I want to live”.
She says: “I’ll always be grateful to the friends who saved my life (though I wasn’t at the time). And I’m especially thankful there was no possibility of persuading my doctors to legally help me die.”
She believes that disabled people “deserve the same kind of help routinely given to those who do not have a physical condition but who feel suicidal”.