Friday, May 12, 2006

UK debates assisted dying bill

Lords debate assisted dying bill

A bill which would allow terminally ill people to be helped to die by physicians is to be debated by peers.

Lord Joffe's bill would apply to those in England and Wales set to die within six months and suffering unbearably, but still able to make decisions.

The bill proposes that after signing a legal declaration that they wanted to die, patients could be prescribed a lethal dose of medication to take.

The bill is not set to become law, but 81 peers are due to speak on the issue.

The debate highlights divisions between supporters of the right to die and those who want better palliative care.

Lord Joffe's bill, which is having its second reading in the Lords, proposes that doctors would be able to opt out if a request was made to them.

Care Not Killing

The bill is modelled on legislation in place in Oregon, in the US.

The debate over physician-assisted suicide provokes strong feelings and the House of Lords is starting at 1000 BST - an hour earlier than normal for a Friday - to allow everyone to take part.

Even if the bill survives an amendment tabled by Lord Carlile of Berriew to halt its progress, the government would have to allow debating time in order for it to become law.

'Vulnerable at risk'

Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams is among those due to speak against the bill.

He has written a joint letter to Friday's Times newspaper with Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor and Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks.

In it, they say they believe all human life is "sacred and God-given with a value that is inherent, not conditional".

"We urge legislators to withhold support for this bill so as to ensure that British law continues to safeguard the principle that the intention to kill, or assist in the killing, of an innocent human being is wrong."

Dignity in Dying

Disability campaigners argue that assisted dying would create pressure for vulnerable people to end their lives and that the real need is to ensure that they get the best possible care.

The group Care Not Killing said it will deliver a petition signed by 100,000 people demanding an end to attempts to change the law.

Campaign director Dr Peter Saunders said: "We believe this is a very bad bill and one that would create serious problems for old and sick patients and the medical and nursing professions."

Earlier this week, a Royal College of Physicians poll found three quarters of members surveyed were against a change in the law, favouring better palliative care for the dying instead.

'Clear support'

But supporters of the bill say doctors should be able to prescribe drugs so a terminally ill person suffering terrible pain could choose to end their own life.

A YouGov survey of 1,770 people for Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) found 76% were in favour of assisted dying as long as there were safeguards in place.

Deborah Annetts, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, said: "The public is being massively turned off by this week's well-funded demonstration of religious opposition against a bill they clearly support.

"Even with the high quality of our palliative care, some people will still want this option."

Story from BBC NEWS: