Peer backs right to die as Lords debate change to law

Newcastle peer Lord Beecham told the House of Lords his wife's experience with cancer convinced him the law should be changed

Lord Jeremy Beecham at the opening of a street in Benwell in his name and a wooden bench in his wifes memory.
Lord Jeremy Beecham at the opening of a street in Benwell in his name and a wooden bench in his wifes memory.

A North East peer has backed calls to give people with terminal illnesses a right to die - after his own terminally ill wife said she might one day ask for help ending her life.

Lord Beecham, the former Labour leader of Newcastle City Council, spoke as the House of Lords debated controversial legislation allowing doctors to prescribe a lethal dose to terminally ill patients judged to have less than six months to live.

Previous attempts to get the legislation onto the statute book have always run into fierce opposition and a lack of Parliamentary time.

Support for a change in the law has come from the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord George Carey and Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton, a former Labour Lord Chancellor, proposed the legislation, called the Assisted Dying Bill, a the start of a marathon ten-hour debate in which around 130 peers spoke.

Lord Beecham, a Shadow Minister, was one of the last to speak and officially concluded the debate on behalf of the Labour Party, although he stressed he was offering a personal opinion.

He highlighted the case of his wife, Brenda Beecham, who died of cancer in 2010.

The peer said: “It is just over four years to the day that my wife returned to hospital in the last stages of incurable bowel cancer diagnosed two years earlier, and exactly seven weeks short of four years to the anniversary of her death.”

He added: “She had been a nurse, health visitor and counsellor, the daughter and sister of doctors. She had seen her grandmother, mother and brother die of cancer.

“From the start of her two-year journey she made it clear that if the pain became unendurable she would wish to be helped to die.

“In the event she died peacefully and without excessive pain in the hospice where she spent her last few weeks.

“But I know she would have wanted me to support this Bill, wanted those whose suffering could not be sufficiently alleviated, to have the choice which this Bill, with its proper safeguards for both patient and clinician, affords.”

Lord Beecham also suggested that hospitals were effectively helping patients to end their life by using a scheme called the Liverpool Care Pathway, which focuses on reducing the suffering of patients but can involve withrdawing treatment which is deemed to be non-essential because medical professionals have concluded that the patient’s death cannot be avoided.

He said: “The Liverpool pathway has its supporters, but it also has its critics and I understand the general advice is not to deploy it.

“Its use without the consent of the patient is surely a denial of individual choice, and even with the consent of the patient it is difficult to argue that it is fundamentally different in substance and effect from what the Bill proposes.”

Opponents of the proposed law include paralympic gold medallist Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, who said in an interview with the BBC that allowing people the “right to die” was “a really dangerous path to go down”, as some people might feel they were a burden to society and therefore had a “duty to die”.

Peers and MPs have a free vote on the issue, as it is considered to be a matter of conscience.

But Prime Minister David Cameron on Wednesday spoke of his “worry” about legalising euthanasia, saying he was “not convinced that further steps need to be taken”, and that “people might be being pushed into things that they don’t actually want for themselves”.

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