Frank Field, the former Labour MP for Birkenhead, has revealed that he is terminally ill as he backed a law that would allow assisted dying.
Field, 79, represented the Merseyside constituency for almost 40 years – making him one of the longest-serving MPs in the Commons – before forming his own party and losing the seat in the 2019 general election. He was later made a crossbench peer.
During a Lords debate on the assisted dying bill, which would allow terminally ill adults in England and Wales to legally seek support to end their lives, a statement was read out on behalf of Field by Molly Meacher, who tabled the bill.
The statement 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].
“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.”
He added that concerns that people would be pressured to end their lives were “unfounded”: “The numbers of assisted deaths in the US and Australia remains very low, under 1%, and a former supreme court judge in Victoria, Australia, about pressure from relatives, said: ‘It just hasn’t been an issue.’ I hope the house will today vote for the assisted dying bill.”
The bill proposes that only terminally ill patients with full mental capacity, and who are not expected to live more than six months, would be eligible to apply for an assisted death.
Campaigners argue this would give those at the end of their lives greater control over how and when they die, while opponents say it could leave vulnerable people exposed to unwanted pressure.
The former Scottish Conservative leade Ruth Davidson used her maiden speech in the Lords to argue for people to be given “the right to die”. She said voting against an assisted dying bill in Holyrood six years ago had “felt like cowardice” that had “nagged at my conscience ever since”, and there was a clear imbalance in the argument between those who sought to offer choice and those who sought to deny it.
Her own experiences with IVF and of seeing loved ones with dementia had changed her views on assisted dying, she said. “It made me consider that … for the mind to stay clear, and the body to be crippled in unendurable pain with the certain knowledge of a slow death outcome where the law says ‘endure you must’ goes beyond conscience.”
Also in favour was Michael Dobbs, whose father and eldest brother both died of prostate cancer. His remaining brother has been told he will not survive it, and he was diagnosed with it himself earlier this year.
A law that says he and his loved ones “must suffer in agony and without hope” is one of “the utmost cruelty” and must be changed, Lord Dobbs said.
However, the archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, said that although safeguards in the legislation were stronger than in previous attempts to change the law, they still do not go far enough.
“What we want is assisted living, not assisted dying. There is no difference between us in compassion. It is our concern about the effectiveness of the safeguards and the care for the vulnerable,” he told BBC Breakfast, adding that mistakes in diagnoses left people open to “very, very intangible forms of coercion and pressure”.
Previous attempts to introduce similar laws have all been defeated. The issue was debated on Friday in parliament for the first time in more than six years.
Lady Meacher said that in that time there had been a “radical shift” in medical opinion, with the Royal College of Physicians ending its opposition to assisted dying in 2019, followed by the British Medical Association last month.
A recent YouGov poll showed 73% of the public supported doctor-assisted dying for people who are terminally ill, compared with one in three MPs.
The former Scottish secretary Michael Forsyth, who had previously been opposed, also changed his position. He told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme of going to see his father, who had terminal cancer and was in “very great pain”, before he died.
“I said to him, ‘Dad, I am so sorry you are in this position,’ and he completely took me aback by saying: ‘You are to blame.’ And I said, ‘how am I to blame?’ and he said: ‘Because you and others have consistently voted against the right to die. I would like to be relieved of this, and they can’t relieve me of the pain, and I am in this position because of folk like you.’”
Forsyth added: “I also had this nagging guilt, I’ve always voted against it but actually at the same time felt a complete hypocrite because I would want it for me if I got some terrible motor neurone disease or something, I would want it for me to spare not just me, but my family.”
Speaking in opposition to the bill, Lord Curry of Kirkharle told peers that six years before her death, his daughter, who had learning disabilities, had become very ill and was not expected to survive.
“We were torn between wishing her to pull through and yet thinking that perhaps the best solution might be for her to slip quietly away so that her pain and suffering could be over,” he said. Had they been offered assisted dying at the time, they might have agreed, he said.
But she pulled through and lived another six years. “What a tragedy it’d have been had her life been cut short six years too early,” Curry said.
The bill, which is having its second reading in the Lords, is unlikely to become law without government support.