Living wills reform 'does not legalise euthanasia'

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The Independent Online

Living wills allowing Alzheimer's sufferers and other mentally incapacitated patients to forbid doctors to intervene to save their lives will not open the door to legalised euthanasia, the Government insisted yesterday.

Living wills allowing Alzheimer's sufferers and other mentally incapacitated patients to forbid doctors to intervene to save their lives will not open the door to legalised euthanasia, the Government insisted yesterday.

Under the new Mental Incapacity Bill, patients will be able to appoint a relative or friend to take future decisions on their behalf. Those with no one to act for them will also be able to leave instructions for their care under the new provisions.

Two million people are affected by a lack of mental capacity in the UK, with the number set to rise as the population ages. Under the present law, patients who are conscious and can communicate have the right to refuse treatment.

The new measures, published yesterday, are expected to become law in 2007 and will also cover patients with learning difficulties or who have suffered severe head injuries.

They were drawn up after extensive consultation with the Catholic Church and other parties, including Alzheimer's charities, the Government said. "This Bill expressly provides that it does not affect the law on murder, manslaughter or assisted suicide," said Lord Filkin, a Constitutional Affairs minister. "I hope the Bill will finally lay to rest the misplaced concerns about euthanasia."

Living wills, which are being recognised in British statute for the first time, will allow a nominated person "lasting powers of attorney". This will mean they can make decisions on the patient's health and personal welfare. Current law allows only financial matters to be delegated.

Nominated people will have the power to "give or refuse consent to the carrying out of a treatment" by doctors. But this will not allow them deliberately to end someone's life - even if that is the wish of the patient.

The wills will normally be required to be completed in writing, witnessed by a third party and made under medical advice. There will be a raft of safeguards including a new Court of Protection, headed by a panel of judges, as a final decision maker on disputed cases.

A code of practice will be published before the Bill becomes law.

Lord Filkin there had been lengthy discussions with the Roman Catholic church, specifically the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff, Peter Smith, on safeguards against euthanasia.

There will also be a new criminal offence of negligence or ill-treatment of a person who lacks mental capacity, carrying a maximum of five years' imprisonment.

Tim Boswell, the Conservative home affairs spokesman, said the issue needed to be addressed urgently.

"The important thing is that proper safeguards are put in place to ensure any advance directions are based on free and informed consent whilst the person is of sound mind," he said.

The Liberal Democrat health spokesman, Paul Burstow, said the Bill was long overdue. "It ensures that, for the first time, the voiceless and powerless will have their needs and wishes listened to and respected," he said.