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Last Updated: Tuesday, 14 December 2004, 13:01 GMT
Head to head: Euthanasia laws
MPs are debating the Mental Capacity Bill, which critics claim would legalise euthanasia "by the back door". Labour MP Claire Curtis-Thomas and Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee debated the issue on BBC Radio 4's Today programme.


I will be voting against my party for the first time today because I don't think this bill actually safeguards people without capacity to a sufficient degree and it does not protect their advocates either.

Claire Curtis-Thomas
Ms Curtis-Thomas: Against 'euthanasia by omission'
Moreover, I think some of the measures in this bill will lead to euthanasia by omission and I am opposed to that.

My mother's experience was that following a second stroke which left her totally paralysed, I was told she was in a permanently vegetative state and she would succumb very quickly.

She did not succumb. She continued to live just on hydration for 12 weeks, whereupon I was told that perhaps "we ought to consider giving your mother something to eat" because clearly she is not succumbing at this point.

I then spent some time trying to convince the doctors that my mother was capable of expressing her own wishes and I finally succeeded.

Change of mind

My mother had previously said she didn't want any intervention whatsoever - and, by the way, food and water is intervention, it is also defined as medical treatment.

But, at that point, she said that given this choice she had changed her mind and she wishes to be supported and she wished to be fed - and, in fact, she wanted every medical intervention going after that so that her life could be made more bearable. And she had five good years with her family.

There will be people like me who say we must not strenuously strive to keep people alive.

But you must, if someone has lost capacity, at least make those individuals comfortable and certainly not starve them to death of cause them to die of thirst, because that is what could happen under this bill.

Then quite legitimately what we will have is the pro-euthanasia group saying: 'Look what you have done is, you have enshrined in law someone's right not to have any treatment and that's causing them to starve to death or to die of thirst.

'If you have given that right who are you, the government, to say when they can execute that right.'


These things are very difficult and they are very personal and very particular to each person. I think people feel a great sense of resentment of others telling them what they must do on this.

Polly Toynbee
Ms Toynbee believes the bill does not go far enough
My own mother was perfectly competent until the day she died.

She knew exactly what she wanted. It is rather different because what she needed was assistance to die, which is not the same as withdrawing treatment.

She had signed a living will, I knew she absolutely meant it and if she had lost her mental capacity I hope that that would have been obeyed, that she could have died without pain and with dignity.


That's not what happened. There are many myths about how these days palliative care is so good, morphine is a good drug.

Actually, a lot of cancer patients in particular end their lives in quite excruciating agony and really in a state of torment and torture and humiliation. They're perfectly mentally competent to say they think it's time to go and there is nobody there to help them.

I would go further than this bill. There is a bill in the Lords at the moment which suggests that where it is quite clear what people's wishes are, they should be allowed, as you can in Switzerland and Holland, to ask a doctor to end their life.

A quick injection, like going under for an operation, you're out in about three seconds and that is your decision.

Obviously a panel of doctors would have to make sure you were competent and it was what you really wanted. There would need to be safeguards.

But it seems to me an absolute right. At the moment by denying that right the government is inflicting quite terrible and serious suffering often for a long time on large numbers of patients.

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