The Patient (Assisted Dying) Bill


By David Alton

Universe Column June 22nd 2003

An unprecedented number of Peers remained at Westminster for a Friday debate on Lord Joffe’s Euthanasia Bill. By the end of the debate’s conclusion 23 Peers had spoken for the Bill and 25 had spoken against it.  Some powerful speeches were made by Catholic peers, including Lord Brennan, Lord St. John of Fawsley, Baroness Howells of St. Davids, Lord Patten, Lord Mowbray and Stourton, Baroness Masham, and Baroness Cumberlege.

I told the House that above all we should consider the views of doctors – who would be required to administer the lethal injections to kill their patients. The British Medical Association made their opposition crystal clear: “there is consensus within the BMA that the law should not be changed to permit euthanasia or physician assisted suicide in the UK”.

The BMA has been joined by the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Anaesthetists and the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges.

The Royal College of Physicians has stated that the Bill is “potentially dangerous”; that it is “composed of two ill-fitting parts”; and that,

“key terms in the Bill are worryingly vague . . . it could be extended to apply to a very large number of patients beyond those whom the sponsors had in mind when they proposed it”.

Along with the Royal Colleges, the hospice movement, Help the Aged, Age Concern, the Disability Rights Commission and an impressive array of religious leaders, including the  Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishops of Westminster and Glasgow, the Chief Rabbi, and the Islamic Medical Association have all spoken out against euthanasia.

The arguments for and against euthanasia and assisted suicide were extensively considered by a House of Lords Select Committee nine years ago.

They unanimously recommended that,

“There should be no change in law to permit euthanasia” adding that

“We recommend no change in law on assisted suicide”

Even though the arguments have not altered,  since that report the campaign by the international pro-euthanasia movement to change the law has intensified. The pro euthanasia peers will now try to set up another committee to reverse the findings of the earlier committee.

What they will try to expunge is the central finding that the prohibition on killing is at the centre of morality, providing the cornerstone of whatever rights an individual may have.

All the talk nowadays is about autonomy —and the right to do with one’s life as one chooses. “Autonomy” is one of the buzzwords of the pro-euthanasia lobby and can clearly be seen in the wording of the Bill. However, autonomy is not an absolute right that each of us, as individuals, can exercise while living in our own little bubbles.

No-one can fail to be moved by tragic cases but the Select Committee was fundamentally right to argue that:

“individual cases cannot reasonably establish the foundation of a policy (the legalization of euthanasia) which would have such serious and widespread repercussions. Moreover dying is not only a personal or individual affair. The death of a person affects the lives of others . . . We believe that the issue of euthanasia is one in which the interest of the individual cannot be separated from the interest of society as a whole”.

Lord Joffe has argued that our law should now be changed to mirror the Dutch laws. But be clear what has happened there. The Dutch first decriminalised their laws; then enacted voluntary euthanasia; then permitted involuntary euthanasia; and now it has become so routine that many doctors do not even bother to report it. I was in Holland recently when the Dutch Government officially reported that last year there were some 3,800 cases of euthanasia and that 900—one in four—were involuntary. So much for patient autonomy. Even more shocking, the Dutch Government also reported that in 2001,

“just 54 per cent of such deaths were officially reported”.

The research concluded that,

“the low percentage of reported euthanasia deaths was because doctors wished to avoid the administrative hassle of reporting a euthanasia case and were concerned they might have breached the regulations”.

So there we have it. We decriminalise; we move to voluntary euthanasia; we move on to involuntary euthanasia; and then, because it becomes so routine, we move on to non-reporting in some 50 per cent of cases.  And we destroy the relationship between doctors and their patients.

As this Bill now proceeds to a Committee Stage we need to redouble our efforts to defeat it  (more information available from foleym@parliament.uk )

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