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Euthanasia Briefing - 21st October 2005

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euthanasia briefing 21 October 2005

Britain is teetering on the brink of legalising physician-assisted suicide (PAS) and possibly also euthanasia as the result of a powerful campaign by pro-euthanasia factions to change the opinion of the public, media, politicians and (perhaps most significantly) doctors.

Here is a review of recent events which will bring you up to date with the latest developments as well as telling you what you can do.

House of Lords Debate

The long-awaited debate on the House of Lords' Select Committee report on Lord Joffe's Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill took place on 10 October. In all 73 peers took part in a debate that started at 3pm and finished just before midnight. Speakers were more or less evenly divided for and against the bill (34 for, 36 against, 3 neutral) with the 13 Select Committee members finally showing their individual hands. The seven to five split in favour of a change in the law was no surprise to anyone who had read their report.

For: Baroness Jay, Baroness Hayman, Lord Patel, Earl of Arran, Lord Taverne, Lord Joffe and Baroness Thomas

Against: Lord Carlile, Lord McColl, Baroness Finlay, Lord Turnberg and the Bishop of St Albans

The chairman Lord Mackay once again took a neutral position. There was no vote on the day of the debate but the arguments put forward will play a major part in determining future events.

The full debate can be read in Hansard on the UK parliament website at www.publications.parliament.uk.

I would draw your attention particularly to the contributions of Baroness Ilora Finlay, who spoke in depth about Oregon, Lord Walton, who chaired the last Select Committee in 1994 and remains opposed to any change in the law, and Lord Puttnam, who gave the most emotive pro-euthanasia speak in which he related the story of his mother's death. Follow these links to get directly to individuals talks:

It is clear form the Lords debate that the key issues that are driving this debate are:

  1. The belief that autonomy should take precedence over the sanctity of life
  2. Public opinion polls (allegedly 80% in favour)
  3. The fear of dying badly (fuelled by stories of bad experiences and misinformation)

Our priorities must therefore be to show that:

  1. Autonomy has limits and euthanasia undermines autonomy
  2. Public opinion has been fuelled by misinformation
  3. Requests for euthanasia are very rare with good palliative care

The committee this time (unlike 1994) did not at any stage visit a hospice.

The full Select Committee Report which was published in April 2005 is at www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld/ldasdy.htm.

What happens now?

Lord Joffe has announced his intention to introduce a revised bill attempting to legalise euthanasia along the lines of the Oregon model (physician assisted suicide but not euthanasia) in late October/early November.

The bill once tabled (first reading) will proceed to a second reading (where there is traditionally no vote in the Lords) and then to a committee of the whole House where it will be further debated and amended before coming back to a third reading and final vote. If it passes this, then provided that he government grants the bill parliamentary time (which is likely), it will proceed to the House of Commons. If it successfully traverses the Commons it will become law. This whole process could happen in a matter of a few months.

The text of the original bill it can be accessed at: www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/ld200304/ldbills/017/2004017.htm. The new bill which will be published shortly will have been updated from this original.

Faith Groups

The Church of England has remained firmly opposed to Lord Joffe's bill after a 293 to 1 vote at General Synod in July. The three Bishops who spoke in the Lords debate (London, Oxford and St Albans), along with former Archbishops of Canterbury and York (Carey and Habgood) were defiant in their rejection of any law change in the face of a stormy barrage of opposition voices.

In the week before the debate nine major UK faith leaders (representing the six world faiths of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism) wrote an open letter to every member of the House of Lords and the House of Commons arguing strongly against any change in the law. The letter was, perhaps predictably, almost entirely ignored by the media, but was referred to several times in the House of Lords debate.

We can supply a copy of the letter on request - email tanya@cmf.org.uk.

Online video resources

UK Christian News has produced a 9 minute video on the Assisted Dying Bill which can be viewed on their website at www.ukchristiannews.tv.

This is a good introduction to show to church groups to bring them up to date.

In addition the debate at the BMA annual meeting on 28 June, in which 6 Christian doctors took part, is available on the BMA website. It lasts just over 30 minutes and gives a more in depth overview of the issues and arguments on both sides. Go to www.bma.org.uk/ap.nsf/Content/AssistedDyingDebate.

High bandwidth users go to www.voiceprompt.co.uk/bma/28debate_hi.wvx.
Low bandwidth users go to www.voiceprompt.co.uk/bma/28debate_lo.wvx.

The debate was chaired by Dr Peter Bennie and introduced by Ann Somerville, a member of the BMA's secretariat. Although the vast majority of speakers in the debate opposed euthanasia, the BBC predictably reported it in a very biased way.

The medical profession

The official neutrality of much of the medical profession remains a deep concern. The BMA, after its controversial vote to 'go neutral' at a barely quorate meeting in the closing hours of its June Annual Representative Meeting, remains entrenched in this position, ignoring calls for a referendum and claiming that no further change of policy can be considered until summer 2006 (when euthanasia might well be legal!). The Royal College of Physicians has not shifted from the neutral position it adopted last autumn, and shows no signs of changing its stance.

In stark contrast both the Association for Palliative Medicine and the Royal College of General Practitioners made strenuous efforts to establish their members' views. The APM survey found that over 90% of palliative medicine opposed a change in the law and in like manner RCGP members and faculties gave overwhelming support to a statement on assisted dying for the terminally ill opposing any change in legislation.

Please keep quoting the RCGP and APM positions at every opportunity. See:

Please also keep reminding people that the BMA vote was not representative of grass roots medical opinion. See www.spiked-online.com/Articles/0000000CACE8.htm.

When the 24 September edition of the British Medical Journal published five articles in its education and debate section on euthanasia, with four out of five plus a covering editorial (titled 'A time to die?') being strongly pro-assisted dying, over one hundred letters from doctors were posted on the BMJ website in the following ten days. Of these over 95% were against any change in the law. See:

Please also keep making the point that the majority of doctors are opposed to assisted dying:

I am reminded of the words of Andrew Ivy, Medical Consultant to the Prosecution in Nuremberg, who blamed the Nazi Holocaust upon 'the bulk of the German medical profession' on the grounds that they 'acquiesced in silence' and permitted themselves 'without vigorous protest to be ruled by those who cooperated consciously and even willingly' with the state. Britain may not have traversed the same slippery slope as pre-war Germany yet but there is no doubt that the medical profession is facing a crisis of leadership in this country. The question history will ask of us is whether or not we made 'vigorous protest'.

(Doctors of Infamy – the Story of the Nazi Medical Crimes, Alexander Mitscherlich M.D., and Frank Mielke, translated by Heinz Norden. 1949, Henry Schuman, Inc, New York.)

Scotland

MSP Jeremy Purvis has now published the responses to his consultation on his 'Dying with Dignity' Consultation. It is reported on his website that, 'Jeremy has now completed a summary analysis of the record number of people who responded to his consultation. Over 600 people and organisations submitted their views and it has taken time to ensure that each response received full consideration. 56% of the responses were in favour and 33% were opposed.'

Scottish CMF Executive member Dr Peter Kiehlmann comments as follows:

'Today P&J reported “MSP says half of Scots support the right to die” in a banner headline. This is blatant mis-information. From his website it seems that he is counts each submission singly despite the fact that many submissions are from large groups who spent significant time in considering the issue. These include the Royal College of GPs (2,943 individual GP members), the Scottish Partnership for Palliative Care (53 member organizations representing thousands of individuals), the British Geriatric Society Scotland and to quote from Mr Purvis' website many 'Religious Organisations' -Twenty eight submissions were placed in this category. Responses came from many of the major faith denominations in Scotland including Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Mormon and Baha'i. They also included responses from the Christian Medical Fellowship, the Nurses' Christian Fellowship of Glasgow, one member of the Guild of Catholic Doctors, and a personal response from the Chairman of the Lawyers Christian Fellowship.'

The full report is available in word and pdf format at www.jeremypurvis.org/consultation1.htm. Specific urls are:

The original consultation document is at www.jeremypurvis.org/resources/Dying with Dignity Consultation paper.pdf.

It is not clear what Mr Purvis next step will be, but given Joffe's intention to restrict his new bill to England and Wales, it is likely that the VES will currently be drafting a Scottish Bill for mr Purvis.

Other notable events

The Swiss suicide clinic Dignitas is to open an office in the UK, the Independent reports. Dignitas has helped 37 Britons to kill themselves at its clinic in Zurich and claims to have hundreds of UK-based members. However, it is illegal in the UK to help a person to commit suicide. [news.independent.co.uk]

Three days after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans, staff members at the city's Memorial Medical Center had repeated discussions about euthanizing patients they thought might not survive the ordeal, according to a doctor and nurse manager who were in the hospital at the time.The Louisiana attorney general's office is investigating allegations that mercy killings occurred and has requested that autopsies be performed on all 45 bodies taken from the hospital after the storm. Orleans Parish coroner Frank Minyard said investigators have told him they think euthanasia may have been committed. [www.cnn.com]

The battle ahead

The apathy, fear and ignorance of the public, the liberal bias of the media and the strength of the pro-euthanasia lobby will be significant obstacles but this battle is in essence spiritual. The embracing of a pro-death culture is merely a symptom of the much greater malaise under the surface in a society that has rejected Christian faith and values. Win or lose it is clear that the battle lines have been drawn and we face a long fight in the months, and perhaps years, ahead.

Action Points

Our key priorities now are to change the hearts and minds of the public and to do all we can to ensure that the new bill does not get beyond the House of Lords.

  1. Media
    Please write articles for your church newsletter and letters for your local press. You can quote any of the above information. The BMJ letters at bmj.bmjjournals.com/cgi/eletters/331/7518/0-g are a rich and accessible source of ideas.
  2. Write to members of the House of Lords (Peers) urging them to oppose the Joffe Bill and to be present at the vote. Contact addresses are at www.parliament.uk/useful/address.cfm. Do not simply cut and paste material but write in your own words. If at all possible give personal examples of people you know who had good palliative care. Limit your letters to no more than one side of A4 and make no more than one or two points. Be polite and courteous and make it clear that you are well-informed about the issues and concerned about the proposed bill. Argue specifically against the Oregon model – you will find a rich source of information in:
  3. Pray
    • For all members of the House of Lords about to debate the revised bill
    • For those in leadership at the BMA and RCP
    • For leaders in the churches to wake up to what is happening
    • For many media opportunities
    • For changed minds and hearts
    • Against the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide

Give thanks:

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