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Last Updated: Friday, 6 June, 2003, 17:17 GMT 18:17 UK
Euthanasia Bill clears first hurdle
Clasped hands
The Bill would apply to the terminally ill
A move to legalise euthanasia in Britain has cleared its first hurdle.

The House of Lords has agreed to give a Bill, which would give terminally ill people the right to be helped to die, a second reading.

That decision means Lord Joffe, the peer who is championing the legislation, will now be able to present detailed proposals to parliament.

However, the Bill is unlikely to make it into law because it does not have government support.

'Public support'

Earlier, Lord Joffe told peers people should be allowed to die "with dignity and without suffering".

The crossbencher said a majority of the public supported a change in the law, and said figures from other countries suggested up to 26,000 patients a year were already helped to die by their doctors.

He said: "We have laws in place which are clearly out of tune with the views of the majority of the population.

Rather than ensuring the right to die, the Bill would quickly translate into a duty to die for disabled people
Liz Sayce, Disability Rights Commission

"They are laws which offend against the principle of autonomy and they are laws which place both doctors and patients at risk."

He added: "Furthermore, they are laws which do not adequately prevent offences which they are intended to prevent.

"The purpose of this law is to change the law in the interest of patients, of doctors and society as a whole."

The Bill, should it become law, would legalise voluntary euthanasia under strict conditions.

It would allow a competent adult suffering from a terminal disease or a serious, incurable physical illness to ask for medical assistance to die.

They would need two doctors - one a consultant - to confirm their diagnosis.

The recent cases of Dianne Pretty, who had Motor Neurone Disease but lost her court fight for her husband to be allowed to help her die, and Reginald Crew, an MND patient who went to Switzerland so he could be helped to die, have highlighted the issue of assisted dying.

Mrs Pretty's husband Brian supports the Bill.

But there is strong opposition to a change in the law from disabled rights groups.

And Catholic bishops urged peers to reject the proposals saying they would weaken protection for the elderly and destroy trust between doctors and patients.

'Sympathetic'

However Lord Joffe has won the support of Karen Sanders who chairs the Royal College of Nursing's ethics forum.

Ms Sanders, who specialised in intensive care nursing and neurosciences told the Guardian on Friday: "I feel strongly about euthanasia because I believe that competent adults who have incurable or insufferable diseases should have the right to make their own choices about their own lives."

She added that she, like many of her colleagues, had been asked by terminally ill patients to help them die.

"I have been sympathetic to people's wishes to die and would like to have been able to help them."

She stressed she was speaking in a personal capacity.

The RCN's General Secretary Beverley Malone said it was against euthanasia and assisted suicide.

She added: "The RCN is opposed to the introduction of any legislation which would place the responsibility on nurses and other medical staff to respond to a demand for termination of life from any patient suffering from intractable, incurable or terminal illness."

'I would qualify'

Deborah Annetts, of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, said patients' requests to die would not simply be accepted, under the proposals laid out in the Bill.

"If someone requests help to die, it triggers a series of communications and consultations with your doctor and an independent doctor to see what can be done to alleviate symptoms, give better palliative care and better quality of life."

But Alison Davies, who is co-ordinator of the "No Less Human" charity, told the BBC she was vehemently against any change.

Ms Davies, 47, who was born severe spina bifida, said she had wanted to die in the past - but had later changed her mind.

"If Lord Joffe's bill had been law, I would have qualified for voluntary killing. I would have requested it, and my request would have been accepted."

"Lord Joffe has suggested that death itself is in the best interest of those that suffer. I say it's not."

And the Disability Rights Commission said the safeguards in the Bill were not enough to protect the disabled.

Its policy director Liz Sayce said: "There is simply no system of safeguards that can detect the hidden pressures and strains from relatives and carers that may drive a disabled person to seek an assisted suicide.

"Rather than ensuring the right to die, the Bill would quickly translate into a duty to die for disabled people."


SEE ALSO:
Bid to legalise assisted suicide
20 Feb 03  |  Politics
Doctors oppose assisted suicide
13 May 03  |  Health
Euthanasia fears for disabled
20 Jan 03  |  Health
Diane's death will be 'glad day'
24 Mar 02  |  Health
Suicide man's 'dignified' death
24 Jan 03  |  England


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