Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill


Universe Column for September 4th 2005

by David Alton

When Parliament returns on October 10th there will be a debate in the House of Lords about Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill. This is the Bill that seeks to legalise euthanasia. Lord Joffe is likely to say he will drop the use of the word “euthanasia” opting instead for the less graphic and more cuddly idea of “physician assisted suicide” But as one senior retired Law Lord said to me “that’s playing with words and splitting hairs, it amounts to exactly the same thing.”

Supporters of the Joffe Bill have argued that as physician assisted suicide has been legalised in jurisdictions such as the American State of Oregon, we should do the same thing here. A carefully orchestrated campaign making this demand has been mounted by the Voluntary Euthanasia Society. And a small gaggle of activists have persuaded the British Medical Association to drop their outright opposition and adopt a “neutral” position….as if  we can be neutral about the deliberate killing of patients.

Before relying too much on the Oregon experience our legislators would do well to pause and consider carefully  the  reflections of Professor Kenneth Stevens, a doctor specialising for 38 years in cancer treatment in Oregon. Professor Stevens was in Westminster recently and he said: “The more I have learned, the more I realise the significant harm and danger of assisted suicide to the vulnerably ill and to society.”

Professor Stevens has studied the effects of the assisted-suicide since the passage of the State’s legislation in 1994. Among the consequences, he says, have been

    · A profound negative shift in attitude towards terminally ill patients in Oregon
    · The commitment to care has become a commitment to the option of killing
    · Pain has never been the issue (as, with proper palliative care, almost all pain can be alleviated). There has not been a single instance in Oregon of assisted suicide being used for actual untreatable pain. 

    · Assisted suicide is being used for psychological and social concerns.
    · It’s not necessarily the patients but people controlling them who have pressed for assisted suicide
    · There have been problems with safeguards
    · There has been a veil of secrecy and a reluctance to be transparent about how the law works – and there has been no real monitoring.

    · Medical care has been distorted and the medical community has been divided.
    · The Oregon Medical Association is opposed to the law;
    · There are financial dangers and consequences for the wider society – and assisted suicide and euthanasia may often become the only choice for some patients.

Professor Stevens also says that he has always cared for his patients without regard for labels such as “terminal”. The effect of legalising assisted suicide has been that “even non-terminally ill patients are now considering assisted suicide.” Once a patient has received a prescription for lethal drugs – barbiturates – there is no incentive for doctors and others to care for the patient or to relieve their symptoms and Professor Stevens says this “results in a deterioration of caring for patients’ medical needs.”


When you legalise euthanasia or assisted suicide you are effectively telling patients they’d be better off dead. Instead of this counsel of despair, Professor Stevens says we should continue to support and develop our palliative care services and hospices.  When the Lords has its debate  on the Joffe  proposals I hope they will think long and hard about the Oregon experience  and hesitate before inflicting such dangerous laws on us.