On 9 November 2005 Lord Joffe re-introduced his Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill, the third ‘assisted dying’ bill he has tabled in the House of Lords in as many years. If passed it will enable ‘an adult who has capacity and who is suffering unbearably as a result of a terminal illness to receive medical assistance to die at his own considered and persistent request’. Put simply it seeks to legalise physician assisted suicide (PAS), but not euthanasia, along the lines of the Oregon Death with Dignity Act.
The House of Lords Select Committee Report on Joffe’s last Bill, which was the subject of a nine hour debate in the Lords on 10 October, made ten recommendations for a new bill of which Joffe has taken on board only four; this bill is therefore essentially ‘more of the same’. The major changes are as follows: The bill applies now only to Wales and England and not Scotland. Although a doctor must still prescribe the lethal drugs, another member of the healthcare team may now‘assist’him in helping the patient to commit suicide (so by implication the doctor need not be present).Terminal illness has now been redefined as ‘likely to cause death within six months’rather than ‘a few months’. The initial request for assisted suicide must now be made in writing and not just verbally, and dissenting doctors now have no legal obligation to refer the patient requesting PAS to another doctor (but must forward the case notes on request).
This Bill is likely to have its ‘second reading’, a debate on the principles of the Bill, early in the New Year. By convention there is no vote at second reading debates in the House of Lords. Next is the Committee stage (beginning two weeks or so later) where the House of Lords considers detailed amendments to the Bill.There is then a final report and third reading stage when the Bill, as amended in Committee, can be further amended and is then voted on by the House. This would most likely be in the late Spring of next year.
Even if the Bill were to pass all its stages in the House of Lords, it would still need to go through the House of Commons to become law. But because the Government has effectively taken a neutral position on the Bill, although we must remain vigilant, it seems unlikely that the Bill would be given time to be debated and progress through the House of Commons during the current session of Parliament which will end in the autumn of 2006.
Whatever happens it is imperative that Christian doctors ensure they are fully informed about the bill’s progress and well rehearsed in the arguments against the legislation of euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. This is an issue that will run and run and the price of freedom is eternal vigilance.