Electronic Telegraph
Thursday 11 December 1997
Issue 931

'Living will' debate launched as MPs reject suicide Bill
By Jon Hibbs, Political Correspondent

THE Government opened the door yesterday to laws regulating the right to die as the Commons decisively rejected a backbench bid to allow doctors to assist terminally ill patients to end their lives.

The Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine of Lairg, sought to spark a public debate on the increasing use of "living wills", under which people can refuse medical treatment in advance if they become seriously ill. The move came as MPs voted 234 to 89, to deny Joe Ashton, Labour MP for Bassetlaw, a formal first reading for legislation to enable the incurably ill to commit suicide with the help of the medical profession.

Opponents claimed the attempt to introduce a Bill under the Ten-Minute Rule was part of an orchestrated campaign in favour of voluntary euthanasia. But Mr Ashton noted wryly the "breathtaking coincidence" that the Government should decide to publish a Green Paper on the same day he raised the issue in Parliament. Lord Irvine insisted his proposals did not represent official approval for euthanasia, in which death was deliberately caused by a third party. That will remain illegal irrespective of the results of a consultation on whether there should be a new statutory framework enshrining the legal rights of the mentally incapacitated and those who care for them.

Tory MPs raised fears that the exercise would effectively legalise "killing by omission" when artificial hydration or nutrition was withdrawn from people in a permanent vegetative state. "Is this not euthanasia by the back door?" asked Ann Winterton, MP for Congleton. But Geoff Hoon, parliamentary secretary in the Lord Chancellor's Department, said: "The intentional termination of life should not be confused with the withdrawal of treatment, when that treatment no longer has any beneficial effect."

In a Green Paper the Government said it was "minded" to accept recommendations made by the Law Commission two years ago which would limit the legal responsibilities of carers, put serious medical decisions into the hands of doctors or the courts, and extend the powers of the Court of Protection to resolve disputes over a patient's health, welfare and finances. However, it made clear there were no immediate plans for legislation, and that ministers had an open mind on living wills. In calling for regulation of such "advance statements" the Law Commission said any refusal of treatment in advance should be presumed not to apply where the life of the patient was at stake. "Living wills" are already allowed in law but cannot require a doctor to do anything illegal, including taking steps to end a patient's life, or provide treatment considered against the patient's best interests.

The Green Paper warned that any legislation would require additional resources, for courts and legal aid budget as well as health and social services. Mr Ashton denied his Doctor Assisted Dying Bill was a step towards euthanasia and maintained it would increase the options for an estimated 300,000 terminally ill people. His initiative followed the death of Annie Lindsell, 47, a victim of motor neurone disease who sought High Court approval for treatment that would relieve her suffering but speed her death. In the event, she died naturally without needing the drugs.

10 December 1997: 'Mercy killings' court proposed
29 November 1997: Turning doctors into killers [Feature]
6 November 1997: Vote allows doctors to aid suicide

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