Briefing Paper on Lord Joffe's Private Member's Bill
A new Bill attempting to legalise Dutch-style euthanasia throughout Britain is now the subject of a Select Committee in the House of Lords. Lord Joffe's Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill passed its second reading on 10 March 2004 without a vote, and is now being considered by a Select Committee, where it can be rejected or amended before returning to the House of Lords. The Committee is taking submissions up until 3 September 2004. If it traverses the House of Lords it then faces the much easier challenge of three readings in the Commons before becoming law.
The Bill seeks to legalise assisted suicide for competent adult patients who are 'terminally ill' and 'suffering unbearably'. Patients who are unable to participate in assisted suicide can receive euthanasia. All that is required are the signatures of two doctors and two witnesses to the decision.
If passed we believe it would open the floodgates to euthanasia in this country given the current climate of favourable public opinion, some willing doctors, and many patients already feeling a burden to relatives, carers and society at large.
Requests for voluntary euthanasia are rarely free and voluntary, and in fact extremely rare when patients' physical, psychological and spiritual needs are properly met. CMF has consistently opposed euthanasia on the grounds that it is unnecessary (because alternative treatments exist), dangerous (because of the slippery slope) and morally wrong (it is contrary to all historically accepted codes of medical ethics and the Judeo-Christian ethic).
It is noteworthy that a House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics in 1994 opposed any change in the law to allow euthanasia after an extensive enquiry and concluded that 'it was virtually impossible to ensure that all acts of euthanasia were truly voluntary and that any liberalisation of the law in the United Kingdom could not be abused.' They 'were also concerned that vulnerable people - the elderly, lonely, sick or distressed - would feel pressure, whether real or imagined, to request early death.' We need to pray that this wisdom continues to prevail.
Christian doctors are encouraged to write to individual House of Lords members, encouraging them to oppose the Bill, at: House of Lords, London, SW1A 0PW. A full list of members, along with instructions on how to address them is available on the internet.
Arguments against euthanasia and assisted suicide follow along with a more detailed critique of the provisions of the BillSee also CMF Files on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide and Triple Helix Editorial
Voluntary euthanasia should not be legalised for the following reasons (See www.cmf.org.uk
Medical technology and palliative care have now advanced to a level where most people in this country are able to die comfortably. However, on rare occasions, patients' fears about distressing symptoms and loss of dignity or control over death can prompt them to request help in committing suicide. These fears may be potentiated by depression or a false sense of worthlessness and are often heightened by anxiety about overzealous and inappropriate medical intervention.
As well as treating physical and psychosocial symptoms, doctors have a duty not to administer intrusive medical treatment when the burden of that treatment outweighs its therapeutic benefit. Neither should they give treatment forcibly to competent patients who refuse it, even if that treatment is life-saving.
However, while upholding respect for patient autonomy, doctors must never intentionally give their patients advice or the means to commit suicide, either directly or indirectly. Any law allowing physician assisted suicide would threaten the trust necessary for the doctor-patient relationship to function, place pressure on patients (whether real or imagined) to request early death, and introduce a slippery slope to voluntary and involuntary euthanasia. Such legislation would also be impossible to police, might well undermine the development of palliative care services and could lead to patients being pressured to request suicide for economic reasons by family, carers or society at large.
Medical Ethics are built on the foundation of the Judeo-Christian Ethic and the Hippocratic Oath. The Judeo-Christian ethic affirms that human beings are made in the image of God, and belong to God and that the taking of innocent human life (even if the life is 'one's own') is always wrong regardless of the wishes, circumstances or motivations of those involved. In the same spirit the Hippocratic Oath enjoins that doctors 'give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest such counsel'. Despite the many changes in medicine these time-honoured values must be reaffirmed by the profession.
Accordingly, whilst as doctors we have a responsibility to provide appropriate treatment, palliation and support to patients who are suffering from distressing symptoms (whether in the context of terminal illness or not) - we must continue to resist any change in the law to allow physician assisted suicide.
We favour a complete rejection of the Bill because we believe that the arguments against legalising euthanasia are overwhelming. A bill legalising euthanasia would create the following precedents that would lead inevitably to more and more euthanasia: