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A royal stand

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10th December 2008

Grand Duke Henri is opposing Luxembourg's new euthanasia law...

A royal stand

We read in The Times that the Government of Luxembourg is planning to remove the power of its Head of State, Grand Duke Henri, to veto laws passed by the State's Parliament. Grand Duke Henri has indicated that he would have problems of conscience approving the law permitting euthanasia, which was agreed by a narrow margin at its first reading earlier this year. The Government of the State says that it sympathises with Grand Duke Henri's predicament but that laws passed by Parliament must be approved by him.

It is beyond Care Not Killing's remit to comment on the constitutional aspects of this question. However, we share Grand Duke Henri's concerns about the effects of the proposed change in the law and we understand why, in good conscience, he feels that he cannot support it. A law such as this is different from other legislation: it flies in the face of centuries of law-making designed to protect the sanctity of human life. Moreover, a law to legalise euthanasia is particularly hard to justify when, for perhaps the first time in history, medical science has advanced to the point where it is able to deal with the suffering of dying and to ensure that terminally ill people die naturally with peace and dignity. The fact is that euthanasia laws like that which is before the Luxembourg Parliament have more to do with the promotion of personal autonomy than they have with the relief of suffering.

Opposition to legalising euthanasia comes not only from people who have conscientious objections to it. Many people in this country, and no doubt in Luxembourg, recognise the very real dangers which legalisation of these practices poses to vulnerable people. It is all very well to talk, as pro-euthanasia campaigners are wont to do, about 'choice' and 'autonomy' at the end of life. Most terminally ill people are interested in good care and effective symptom control rather than in deciding when and where and how to commit suicide. Giving small numbers of self-reliant and determined people a so-called right to have medical help to end their lives would increase the unspoken but very real pressures on larger numbers of more vulnerable people to opt for a similar course of action, against their better judgment but in order to spare others a care burden, or in response to depression, which is a very common feature of terminal illness. The prime purpose of all law-making should be to protect the weak against the strong, the vulnerable against the self-confident and the doubtful against the resolute.

The evidence from other countries that have gone down the road of 'assisted dying' is far from reassuring. In Oregon, it is estimated that one in six of those who have taken lethal drugs from their doctors to end their lives since the enactment of the so-called Death with Dignity Act were suffering from treatable but undiagnosed depression. And in The Netherlands and Belgium, existing euthanasia laws are being interpreted with undue elasticity and extended to encompass new vulnerable groups of people.

It is to be hoped that the citizens of Luxembourg and their representatives in Parliament will think carefully about these risks and about the inherent inconsistency of 'assisted dying' with good medical ethics before taking final decisions on this hazardous law. We wish them wise counsel.

Care Not Killing

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