The euthanasia battle is not over


Universe Column for September 10th 2006

by David Alton

In the immediate aftermath of the defeat of Lord Joffe’s Bill to permit assisted suicide I warned that opponents of euthanasia should not rest on their laurels. Lord Joffe made it abundantly clear that despite Parliament’s hostile verdict he was intent on a war of attrition and that he would reintroduce his Bill in the coming Session.

Supporters of euthanasia have signally refused to test their proposals in the House of Commons – the elected House. This is because they had been hoping for an easier passage in the Lords. Doubtless they will go on trying to wear down the House of Lords -though this may prove counter-productive as many Peers now believe that it would be an abuse to go on trying to by-pass the elected MPs.

Over the summer there has been a spate of activity on both sides of the argument.

First there was the welcome decision of grassroots members of the British Medical Association to revolt against contentious decision to commit the BMA to neutrality – which had been taken in 2005. Two thirds of the doctors voted against physician assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia, and 94% voted against involuntary euthanasia for patients unable to take a decision. 84% voted in favour of an improvement in palliative care services.

The BMA represents 130,000 doctors, so, along with all the Royal Colleges representing the medical profession, they are now four square against any new Joffe Bill. Dr. Michael Wilkes, Chairman of the BMA’s Ethics Committee said: “The position of the BMA is now one of opposition to any further legislation…The message was very clear.”

But, the message was not clear to supporters of Lord Joffe in the media. The carefully choreographed campaign at the BBC to promote support for assisted dying went on at a pace. Jennie Murray, the presenter of Radio Four’s “Woman’s Hour” led the way with her much promoted suicide pact. A television programme was quickly manufactured to popularise her decision to undermine the law. Are we now supposed to listen to interviews on this subject with an undiminished belief in BBC impartiality? The Corporation used to pride itself on unscrupulous objectivity and lack of bias. How will that programme cover end of life issues in the future ( rather like they cover beginning of life issues I suspect).

I couldn’t help wondering whether the subsequent outcome of the Leslie Burke case in the European Courts – where he was fighting against doctors claiming the right to remove his food and fluids – would have been different if Mr. Burke had been a high profile BBC presenter. Leslie Burke’s dignity and his quiet affirmation of his right to die naturally is the perfect antidote to seething mass of demands to see off terminally ill or chronically disabled people. Contrast the coverage of his arguments with the demands for suicide pacts.

Speaking on the very day he buried his brother – who had died of the same disease which Mr. Burke is battling – I was particularly struck by his comment that although he would eventually lose his ability to speak, his intellect would be unimpaired. He would than find it deeply distressing to listen to doctors talking about removing his food and fluid. Mr. Burke made it clear that he is not frightened of dying and does not want artificial means employed to prolong his life – but he clearly understands the difference between dying naturally and being killed. Who is it who best comprehends what is involved in “dying with dignity” – Mr. Burke or the promoters of suicide pacts?

That Mr. Burke is right to have pursued his fears all the way to Europe – and why the courts were wrong not to support him – was illustrated all too clearly by the case of Olive Knockels.

In July Mrs. Knockels’ family took her case to the Coroner’s court – and claimed that their mother, a former school matron aged 91, endured a terrifying death after being deliberately starved by a hospital doctor.

The hospital in East Anglia, where she was being treated, decided that Mrs. Knockels would have no quality of life if she recovered from a stroke. In a statement to the Coroner, the deceased’s daughter said that her mother had begged her for something to eat and drink, or a cup of tea, but the request was refused by a nurse, on the doctor’s orders. The doctor said he was surprised that Mrs. Knockels was still alive and that if the family intervened he would have them arrested.

Do you remember a radio interview or television programme about the fate of Mrs. Knockels?  Sadly for her, she was not the presenter of a high profile radio programme. Nor will you read about her case in the material being circulated by supporters of a change in the law.

Yes, Parliament will return from its summer break in one month from now. It’s a timely moment to write to your MP or to a Member of the House of Lords – speaking up for Mrs. Knockles and Leslie Burke – and praising the decision of the BMA – because you can be sure that if you don’t speak up for them no-one else will.