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ss CMF news - autumn 2005,  Legalising euthanasia

Legalising euthanasia

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 74 peers took part in a debate that started at 3pm and finished just before midnight. Speakers were evenly divided for and against the bill with the 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. There was no vote on the day of the debate but the arguments put forward will play a major part in determining future events.

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) by early November. This revised bill is expected to be an improvement on the last and to have dispensed with the legal requirement for doctors with conscientious objection to refer patients to more ‘sympathetic’ colleagues, but serious concerns remain. 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 the 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.

We continue to believe that any bill seeking to legalise assisted dying, as well as being contrary to the Judeo-Christian ethic and all historically accepted codes of medical ethics, is both unnecessary (because of the availability of alternative treatments) and dangerous (because of likely abuses and the slippery slope). CMF along with a growing alliance of faith groups, professional bodies, prolife groups and disability rights groups continues to oppose the bill and at the time of writing serious discussion, in which CMF is very much involved, is aimed at launching a broad-based movement to promote palliative care and oppose the legalisation of euthanasia and physician assisted suicide (PAS).

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.

The neutrality 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. Only the Royal College of General Practitioners (which in September changed its neutral stance to one of opposition after an overwhelming majority of its members made their views known) and the Association of Palliative Medicine have supported the status quo.

I am reminded of the words of Andrew Ivy, Medical Consultant to the Prosecution Nuremberg, who blamed the Nazi Holocaust upon ‘the bulk of the German medical profession’on the grounds that they‘acquiesced in silence’and this battle is in essence spiritual ’permitted themselves without vigorous protest to be ruled 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 crisis of leadership in this country. The question history will ask of us is whether or not we made ‘vigorous protest’.

The apathy, fear and ignorance of the public, the liberal bias of the media and 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 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.

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