Euthanasia Set to Become Key Issue in Next UK Parliament

By Nicola Brent | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

( - Pro-lifers in Britain have been dealt a double blow, with the imminent passage of "living wills" legislation, and a parliamentary committee's support for another bill that advocates assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia.

The Mental Capacity Bill, one of the last pieces of legislation to be considered before parliament dissolves Monday in preparation for a general election, will allow people to make a "living will" stipulating what medical treatment, if any, they would want if they became incapacitated.

It also provides for an individual to be nominated to make decisions on behalf of an incapacitated patient.

Since its inception, the bill has been dogged by cross-party opposition. An earlier rebellion by several dozen Labor Party lawmakers in the House of Commons forced government amendments ensuring that the legislation could not be used to introduce euthanasia by the back door.

The government agreed it should disallow "any decision made with a purpose of bringing about the death of a person."

Although lobby groups for Alzheimer patients and others have backed the bill, it also has drawn strong criticism.

A group of Catholic medical and legal experts wrote earlier that the legislation "compromises the principle that all people have an intrinsic dignity irrespective of their mental impairment or physical condition, one of the cornerstones of Christian civilization."

Anti-euthanasia campaigners are also concerned about a report published Monday by a House of Lords' committee on another bill, which, if successful when considered by a future parliament, will further strengthen the cause of "right-to-die" activists.

For the past year, the committee has examined the Patient (Assisted Dying) Bill, which advocates assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia for mentally competent but terminally ill patients who are "suffering unbearably."

The report recommended that the bill be debated by lawmakers in both Houses soon after parliament is reconvened following the general election on May 5

It included an appraisal of wide-ranging views reflecting the "current state of public opinion in Britain" and recounted visits to Oregon, the Netherlands and Switzerland, where laws permit either assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia.

(In an assisted suicide, an individual receives the means needed to end their own life, whereas voluntary euthanasia means ending a person's life at his or her request.)

The report identified "key issues" which needed to be addressed in any future legislation, including whether either assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia, or both, should be allowed. There should also be clear guidelines as to what actions were permissible for doctors, it said.

Britain's Voluntary Euthanasia Society welcomed the report, calling it "a momentous day for terminally-ill patients who want greater choice at the end of their lives."

But the proposals will continue to divide parliament and the medical profession.

The British Medical Association and the Royal College of Nursing opposed any change in legislation, while both the Royal College of General Practitioners and the Royal College of Physicians have taken a neutral stance.

The Christian Medical Fellowship and Lawyers' Christian Fellowship expressed regret that the committee "did not have the wisdom and courage unequivocally to reject euthanasia."

CMF spokesman Peter Saunders said euthanasia was "contrary to all historical codes of medical ethics and the Judeo-Christian ethic."

It was not only morally wrong, but also dangerous because it undermined autonomy and "unnecessary because alternative treatments were available," he added.

In its report, the committee acknowledged that "the demand for assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia is particularly strong among the determined individuals whose suffering derives more from the fact of their terminal illness than from its symptoms and who are unlikely to be deflected from their wish to end their lives by more or better palliative care."

LCF representative Charlotte Vincent said although there would always be "individual cases which raise questions about assisted suicide," difficult cases should not be the basis for "bad laws."

"Bad laws change the public conscience and place vulnerable groups at risk," she added. "A change in the law would give doctors power that could be too easily abused, and a responsibility that they should not be entitled to have."

Vincent cited cases in the Netherlands "where over 1,000 patients are killed by doctors each year without their consent" as proof that "progression to involuntary euthanasia is a real danger if the law is changed in the same way here."

This latest report overturns a 1994 recommendation by a similar committee that the law remain unchanged. That report expressed concern that, should the law allow for assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia, "vulnerable people - the elderly, lonely, sick, or distressed - would feel pressure, whether real or imagined, to request early death."

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