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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 December, 2004, 15:47 GMT
Concessions on 'euthanasia' bill
Diane Pretty
Diane Pretty's case sparked more debate about euthanasia
Ministers have promised to change a bill which critics claim would legalise euthanasia "through the back door" so that it cannot authorise killing.

The bill would give legal force to "living wills", where people say they want medical treatment withheld if they become severely incapacitated.

Some Christian groups say it could mean doctors withholding food and fluids.

The government has now pledged to make explicit in the bill that it does not allow decisions aimed at killing.

'Killing by omission'

Ministers insist the Mental Capacity Bill - for England and Wales - would not change laws on assisted suicide and that it favours the preservation of life.

Critics fear it could allow "killing by omission" through withdrawing treatment.

Lord Falconer has now written to the Archbishop of Cardiff, Peter Smith, saying the bill is not meant to authorise any decision where the motive is to kill as opposed to relieve or prevent suffering or ending treatment where the patient is in an irreversible coma.

Ministers would now try to make that intention explicit in the bill.

Patients (could) make unwise and hasty advance decisions to refuse food and fluids without being properly informed
Christian Medical Fellowship

Archbishop Smith said he wanted to see the details of any changes but told BBC News: "In principle, I think they have conceded the point. There was a lot of misunderstanding."

MPs complained of "farce" because they had not seen the letter as they prepared to vote on a series of backbenchers' amendments.

Eventually Constitutional Affairs Minister David Lammy read the letter and confirmed the lord chancellor's promise would cover acts of omission of treatment, including food and fluids.

He said the government did not want to change the law but to strengthen it.

"Doctors are saying they want more clarity," said Mr Lammy. "Patients are saying they want more clarity."

Back door?

The bill would establish a legal presumption that everybody is able to make decisions about their own treatment unless they are proved to be mentally incapable of doing so.

It would also allow people to give somebody the power of attorney to make decisions on their behalf, which could be challenged by doctors.

The bill is currently in its report stage and will go to a third reading and be debated in the Lords before it can become law.

It will not change the current law on euthanasia
Making Decisions Alliance

Christian groups have said the bill would allow euthanasia by the "back door".

Peter Saunders of the Christian Medical Fellowship said: "CMF is concerned that patients will make unwise and hasty advance decisions to refuse food and fluids without being properly informed about the diagnosis and the expected course their illness will take."

In the Commons, ex-Labour minister Frank Field said those wanting changes to the bill did not want to keep people alive at all costs.

"We don't want to bop people off when they have actually got quite a lot of life in front of them," he said.

Ex-Conservative leader Iain Duncan Smith urged MPs to "find for life", saying people making living wills could have changed their mind by the time they were incapacitated.

You should have the right to die with dignity
Hazel, Swindon

The Making Decisions Alliance, which includes the Alzheimer's Society and Age Concern, said the bill did not change the current law but offered better safeguards.

Debate on legalising euthanasia has intensified in the UK because of cases like that of motor neurone patient Diane Pretty.

She died two years ago after losing a legal battle to allow her husband to help her commit suicide.

Q&A: Living wills
14 Dec 04 |  Health
Woman dies in assisted suicide
04 Dec 04 |  Health
Cancer patient 'would use hitman'
23 Nov 04 |  Southern Counties
The quality of mercy is strained
05 Aug 04 |  Magazine
Diane Pretty dies
12 May 02 |  Health


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