Lord Sumption in row with cancer patient over whether or not every life has the same value

·3-min read
Lord Sumption said older and vulnerable people could isolate themselves "if they want to"
Lord Sumption said older and vulnerable people could isolate themselves "if they want to"
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter
Coronavirus Article Bar with counter

A former Supreme Court justice has become embroiled in a row with a woman with stage 4 cancer about whether or not every life has the same value during a televised debate on coronavirus lockdowns.

Lord Sumption was appearing as a guest on The Big Questions, which was 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 could 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."

Deborah James, another guest on the programme, 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, who has since said his comments had been misrepresented, 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."

Prof Calum Semple, another guest, 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."

But on Sunday night, Lord Sumption told the Mail the footage of his comments was "ambiguous", and said: "I object extremely strongly to any suggestion that I was inferring that Miss James’s life was less valuable because she had cancer.

"I thought she was responding to my earlier comments about older people being protected by a total lockdown which is causing immense harm to the young who are unaffected.

"That harm can be to their mental health or through cooping undergraduates up at university or through the loss of jobs.

"I was saying this should not be inflicted on the young to protect old people like me.

"If Miss James has misinterpreted that then I can only apologise to her as it was not my intention to suggest she was less valuable. Sometimes on videolinks it can be difficult to hear what the other person is saying."

Lord Sumption added: "I was certainly not saying her life was less valuable. I was saying the lives of older people are worth less because they have less time to live.

"I understood her to be disagreeing with my proposition. ‘I do not deny saying what is recorded on the footage."

He said: "You are interpreting that as meaning her life is less valuable because she had metastatic bowel cancer. It’s a question of age.

"I was saying that young people should not be sacrificed to save old people."