The debate on the House of Lords' Select Committee report on Lord Joffe's Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill will take place on 10 October starting at 15:30 and continuing until all speakers have had their turn, possibly as late as 23:30. There are currently 59 speakers listed on the Lords Whips website at www.lordswhips.org.uk of whom just under half (28) are expected to speak against the bill.
There will be no vote on the day of the debate but arguments put forward will play a major part in determining future events. We expect Lord Joffe to introduce a revised bill attempting to legalise euthanasia along the lines of the Oregon model (PAS but not euthanasia) possibly as early as the following week. This will then proceed to a second reading (where there is traditionally no vote in the Lords) and then to a committee of the whole House before coming back to a third reading and vote. If it passes this 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 best chance of defeating the Bill is in the House of Lords either through 'wrecking amendments' or through a defeat at third reading.
Apathy and ignorance are the main hindrance to those who oppose euthanasia. It is predicted in the report on the Joffe Bill that an 'Oregon' law in the UK would lead to a 'body count' of 650 per annum compared with 13,000 for a 'Netherlands' Law. You will find a helpful article by Andrew Fergusson on Oregon, in the Summer 2005 edition of Triple Helix on the website of the Christian Medical Fellowship UK.
Many people have written to the British Medical Association (BMA) to complain about the way the recent change of policy on euthanasia was brought about but it is very clear that the BMA have closed ranks around Ethics chairman Michael Wilks. The official line is that a neutral position on euthanasia is now official BMA policy and cannot be changed until the next ARM in Summer 2006. We are greatly concerned that the proeuthanasia lobby will use the BMA position as a lever in the coming parliamentary debate. The BMA position remains neutral as follows:
'The BMA's current position is that it believes that the question of the criminal law in relation to assisted dying is primarily a matter for society and for Parliament. The BMA's recent annual conference voted that the BMA should not oppose legislation which alters the criminal law but should press for robust safeguards both for patients and for doctors who do not wish to be involved in such procedures.'
There has so far been little media interest in this – although the internet journal Spiked has carried an article criticizing the BMA by Michael Cook, editor of Bioedge.
At its Council meeting on 16 September the Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) abandoned its neutral position and is now formally opposed to any change in the law to allow euthanasia. See www.rcgp.org.uk.
The website statement reads as follows:
Overwhelming support was given by RCGP members and faculties to the statement on assisted dying for the terminally ill opposing any change in legislation. Taking account of comments received, the following position statement was agreed:
The RCGP believes that with current improvements in palliative care, good clinical care can be provided within existing legislation and that patients can die with dignity. A change in legislation is not needed.
Dr Mayur Lakhani, Chairman said: 'This is an important and clear decision by the Council of the RCGP. The RCGP is the largest medical Royal College with over 23,000 members. Great care and attention has been taken over this debate which has now been considered by Council twice. The College does not support a change in legislation.
Apparently of 380 GPs who registered their opinions 300 were opposed to any change in the law.
The Royal College of Physicians took a neutral position on euthanasia when gave evidence to the Joffe committee last autumn on behalf of all royal colleges (apparently without consulting the other royal colleges or its own members). At the time Ray Tallis, who was sympathetic to a relaxation of the law, was Chairman of RCP Committee on Ethical Issues in Medicine. The new chair is John Saunders who is much more conservative.
The BMJ this week contains a number of articles and an editorial strongly supportive of a change in the law to allow euthanasia and assisted suicide under the theme 'Time to legalise assisted dying?'– see www.bmj.com The vast majority of doctors letters so far posted on the BMJ site strongly oppose euthanasia – see bmj.bmjjournals.com
The British Medical Journal this week published several articles in support of euthanasia and these have provked a huge response from frontline doctors who do not believe that the law should be changed. You can read articles and responses at bmj.bmjjournals.com. The editorial 'A time to die' and responses are particularly worth reading.
It is a little known fact that the World Medical Association has a strong policy on euthanasia and PAS. This needs more publicity as it makes it evident how out of step the BMA is with international policy. Medical opposition to PAS was affirmed by the World Medical Association in the 1992 Statement of Marbella, and significantly reaffirmed in May 2005 at the WMA 170th Council Session at Divonne-Les-Bains, France. The WMA statement, unlike the new position of the BMA, is forthright and unambiguous:
'Physician-assisted suicide, like euthanasia, is unethical and must be condemned by the medical profession. Where the assistance of the physician is intentionally and deliberately directed at enabling an individual to end his or her own life, the physician acts unethically.'
Web reference is www.wma.net
The Church of England has made a strong stand in rejecting the legalisation of euthanasia or assisted suicide, with a massive 293 to 1 vote at the General Synod in York. Three bishops (London, Oxford and St Albans) are down to speak at the Lords debate.
The Archbishop of Canterbury addressed euthanasia recently in a lecture to mark the Centenary of Friends of the Elderly, Church House, Westminster on 6 September:
I have to say too in this context that the current drift towards a more accepting attitude to assisted suicide and euthanasia in some quarters gives me a great deal of concern. What begins as a compassionate desire to enable those who long for death because of protracted pain, distress or humiliation to have their wish can, with the best will in the world, help to foster an attitude that assumes resources spent on the elderly are a luxury. Investment in palliative medicine, ensuring that access to the best palliative care is universally available, continuing research not only into the causes but into the behavioural varieties of dementia and so on – how secure would these be as priorities if there were any more general acceptance of the principle that it was legitimate to initiate a process designed to end someone's life?
The full speech is at www.archbishopofcanterbury.org.
The euthanasia comments are summarised at www.ekklesia.co.uk.
The joint statement by Anglican and Roman Catholic bishops in September last year is online at www.cofe.anglican.org.
A very useful well-referenced briefing paper by the Bishop of Southwark Tom Butler is also available at www.cofe.anglican.org.
Comments made by Rowan Williams opposing euthanasia recently can be seen on www.ekklesia.co.uk.