A former Supreme Court justice has been criticised after telling a woman with stage 4 cancer that her life was “less valuable” than others during a televised debate on coronavirus lockdowns.
Lord Sumption made his comments while appearing as a guest on The Big Questions show broadcast on BBC One on Sunday morning.
The programme, hosted by Nicky Campbell, aimed to debate the question: “Is lockdown punishing too many for the greater good?”
During the show, Lord Sumption, who sat on the Supreme Court from 2012 to 2018, argued against lockdown measures for everyone, saying older and vulnerable people can isolate themselves “if they want to”.
He said he did not accept that “all lives are of equal value”, adding: “My children’s and my grandchildren’s life is worth much more than mine because they’ve got a lot more of it ahead.”
Responding to his comments, another programme guest, Deborah James, who has stage 4 bowel cancer, said: “With all due respect Lord Sumption, I’m the person who you say their life is not valuable. I live with metastatic bowel cancer.”
Lord Sumption then interrupted her to say: “I didn’t say it wasn’t valuable, I said it was less valuable.”
Ms James continued: “My response to that would be, ‘Who are you to question and put a value on life?’
“In my view, and I think in many others, life is sacred and I don’t think we should make those judgment calls. I feel very, very strongly about that.”
She added: “All life is worth saving regardless of what life it is that people are living.
“I’m fully aware, I’ve seen first hand, I’ve said goodbye to some best friends, in terms of the collateral that Covid is causing, but at the same time I’m grateful to be somebody who is kept alive because of the NHS.”
Campbell also challenged Lord Sumption’s views as “simplistic”, suggesting we have a “fluid society”.
He added: “This notion of the vulnerable in society, it’s actually a very broad spectrum.”
Another guest, virologist Professor Calum Semple, said he “strongly” disagreed with Lord Sumption’s comments.
The University of Liverpool academic said: “The value of life doesn’t change at the age of 70.”
Catherine Foot, from the Centre for Ageing Better, said on the show that she “shuddered” when hearing Lord Sumption’s words.
She said the coronavirus pandemic required the drawing of some “red lines”.
Ms Foot added: “For me, one of those ethical red lines is that every human life is equal.”
On Twitter, human rights lawyer Adam Wagner, sharing a clip of the programme, said Lord Sumption had come across as “inhumane, almost grotesque”.
Genevieve Edwards, chief executive of the charity Bowel Cancer UK, said: “To describe someone’s life as ‘less valuable’ because they have advanced bowel cancer is callous nonsense.
“It’s also incredibly upsetting to people who have experienced disruption to their diagnosis and treatment because of pressures on the NHS, and insulting to the staff doing their absolute best for every patient they see.
“What’s important is to protect the NHS and each and every life that depends on it, not pit one person against another.”