Drama in the House: ‘Home Death’

Joan_Bakewell_4x3.jpgJoan Bakewell on the terrible decision faced by some individuals and their loved ones

I have always believed in the power of the arts to move hearts and minds in a way that solemn argument can rarely do. That’s why I’ve become impresario for a night and am presenting Nell Dunn’s play Home Death at Parliament this evening.

Nell’s partner was dying at home and she wasn’t able to help him.  She felt it was a situation that must happen to many. So she sought them out and tells their real live stories in this moving play. But, for me, the play does more than this. It raises the issue of how we – each one of us – are to die.  

Lord Falconer will soon be introducing his Assisted Dying Bill in the Lords: it is the result of consultation and deliberation by the Choice at the End of Life APPG who give their backing to his proposals. But the issue is likely to raise strong feelings. Issues around life and death often do. Perhaps they come to close to our own inner fears?

I am using the play and its poignant and penetrating observations, as a background against which we can then debate the issues surrounding Assisted Dying. I shall be chairing a discussion with both ‘sides’ of the argument represented:  Lord Falconer himself,  Sarah Wootton of Dignity in Dying, Eve Richardson, Chief Executive of the National Council for Palliative Care and the Dying Matters Coalition, and Dr Jane Collins, Chief Executive of Marie Curie Cancer Care.

When I say ‘sides’ of the argument I make it sound confrontational. Of course, when it comes to legal matters and voting it will have to be like that. Peers will either support Lord Falconer’s Bill or they will not.  But I am hoping our discussion tonight will be more collaborative than that, with each of us listening to the arguments all round.

I have been round and about this week inviting peers who I think will be interested. The medical folk, of course; but also the legal eagles, who will be concerned about how changes in the law will work in practice. There is, after all, a great backlog of experience and rulings to build on.

The present situation arose from the ruling won by Debbie Purdy in 2009, when the Law Lords agreed that the DPP should set out guidelines for people faced with terrible dilemmas. She wanted to be sure that if her husband were to accompany her to Dignitas in Switzerland, at the point where her illness became intolerable, then he would not be prosecuted.  In 2010, the DPP Keir Starmer set out largely sympathetic guidelines and there was then a call by Labour MP Joan Ruddock for the guidelines to be enshrined in law. The government resisted.  And last year, Edward Garnier, as Solicitor General, declared that the guidelines were “a good thing”, adding “why not leave them where they are let them remain good thing?”.  This is the ruling we live with today.

Is it satisfactory?

I chair a BBC Radio 4 programme called ‘Inside the Ethics Committee’ and we deal with dilemmas at the edge of ethic decision-making. We have encountered stories of heartache and distress caused either by people’s failure to understand the law, or their sense that the law is not clear enough for them. Sometimes even members of the medical staff are unclear where their responsibilities begin and end.  That is why I am promoting this play and the discussion that will follow. 

Baroness Joan Bakewell is a journalist, broadcaster and backbench Labour Peer in the Lords

Published 24th April 2013

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