Electronic Telegraph
Wednesday 1 April 1998
Issue 1041

Cardinals attack 'living wills'
By Philip Johnston, Home Affairs Editor

THE leaders of the Roman Catholic Church in Britain and Ireland urge the Government today to avoid taking a step on the road to voluntary euthanasia by making "living wills" legally binding.

Cardinal Basil Hume, Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Thomas Winning, head of the Church in Scotland, and Archbishop Sean Brady, Primate of All Ireland, have written to The Daily Telegraph to voice their "deep unease" over proposals in a green paper issued last year by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg.

These could eventually place so-called "advance statements" - whereby an individual states what sort of treatment they would regard as acceptable should they fall seriously ill - on a statutory footing.

The consultation exercise, which ended yesterday, prompted intense lobbying on both sides of the debate. The Voluntary Euthanasia Society provided supporters with "model answers" to submit to the Lord Chancellor's Department.

"We are taking note of them and their views will be taken into account along with those from the pro-lifers," said an official.

The green paper - Who Decides? - is intended to clear up the law surrounding decision-making on behalf of mentally incapacitated adults.

It says there is "a widespread misconception" linking advance statements, which are lawful, with euthanasia, which is not. It states that there "should be no move towards the legalisation of euthanasia".

Ministers say that they have no immediate plans for legislation and have an "open mind" on living wills. But in their letter, the Roman Catholic church leaders suggest that those issues raised by the Green Paper could have unintended repercussions. The letter says: "Clearly, life should not be preserved at all costs when a person is dying. Medical treatment, though not basic care, can be withdrawn when it is futile or imposes an excessive burden on the patient."

The proposals appeared "to permit non-voluntary euthanasia by the omission of treatment" and envisaged "making legally binding even suicidally-motivated refusals of medical treatment given in advance of mental incompetence . . . Legislation allowing these would result in grave injustice being perpetrated on some of the more vulnerable people in the country."

Last year's case of Annie Lindsell, a motor neurone disease sufferer who brought a High Court action to establish the treatment her GP could administer, has heightened concern among euthanasia opponents. The case collapsed when it was established that the palliative care being proposed was already lawful, though the Voluntary Euthanasia Society hailed it as a victory.

A society spokesman denied it had won nothing from the Lindsell action. "She and others were given firm reassurance that there was nothing illegal in treatment to relieve distress as well as pain and suffering. That's what people fear and dread."

27 March 1998: Woman is legally given help to die
11 December 1997: 'Living will' debate launched as MPs reject suicide Bill
17 September 1997: 'Dr Death' in church row

 

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