Although deeply moved by individual accounts of ill people who had longed for the release of an early death, the Lords said 'mercy killing would place pressures on elderly and vulnerable people to request it'. 'It would also be next to impossible to ensure that all acts of euthanasia were truly voluntary, and that any liberalisation of the law was not abused,' they said.
However, they endorsed patients' rights to refuse any medical treatment; agreed doctors should not take extraordinary measures to preserve life whatever the circumstances; and endorsed doctors' rights to give increasing doses of pain relief to patients, even if such treatment shortened life. The Lords called for improved support for the hospice movement, more training in palliative care and suggested greater use of 'living wills' - where patients can express, in advance of any illness affecting their mental faculties, their preferences and priorities.
The issue of euthanasia was thrown into the spotlight by two recent cases. The first was that of Tony Bland, left in a persistent vegetative state after the Hillsborough disaster. Although his brain stem was effectively dead, he had been kept alive by artificial feeding and hydration. His parents had to apply to the courts for permission to allow doctors to remove the feeding tubes and let him die.
The second was that of Dr Nigel Cox, the rheumatologist convicted of attempted murder after giving a dying patient in terrible pain a potentially lethal injection.
But yesterday the all-party Lords select committee on medical ethics said cases such as that of Mr Bland should not have arisen. Inappropriate treatment which 'will add nothing to the patient's well-being as a person' need not be given, they said. However, health experts should define 'persistent vegetative state' and draw up guidelines for its management, which include full treatment and monitoring of the patient for at least 12 months before withdrawing care, they said.
Further, they rejected calls for the introduction of an offence of 'mercy killing' to cover cases such as that of Dr Cox. Instead, the Lords called for an end to the mandatory life sentence for murder.
The British Medical Association, which had strongly opposed active intervention to end a patient's life, said: 'Any doctors who feel compelled by conscience to intervene to end a patient's life . . . must be prepared to justify their decision in a court of law and to the General Medical Council.'
Bryan Appleyard, page 21Reuse content