Euthanasia fears force a rethink over the right to refuse treatment

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Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved to defuse an explosive Labour backbench revolt yesterday over claims that a government Bill would allow euthanasia by the backdoor.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton moved to defuse an explosive Labour backbench revolt yesterday over claims that a government Bill would allow euthanasia by the backdoor.

The Lord Chancellor held behind-the-scenes meetings with Labour MPs over growing anxieties about the Mental Capacity Bill, which will give legal backing to "living wills", enabling people to refuse treatment when they are incapacitated or in a coma. Yesterday, the Lord Chancellor's junior minister in the Commons, David Lammy, tabled a series of amendments with the Health minister Rosie Winterton to try to meet some of the anxieties.

Ministers also signalled they may support other Labour amendments, including one by George Howarth, a former minister, making it clear that doctors must assume that the patient's best interest is to live.

Passions have been raised over the Bill, which requires doctors to act "in the best interests" of their patients, which could include withdrawing drip-feeding to allow them to die with dignity.

A cross-party group of MPs, members of the Parliamentary Pro-Life group, are fighting to change the Bill - they claim that it would enable doctors legally to starve patients to death. Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, and a group of "pro-life'' MPs including the Labour MP Claire Curtis-Thomas, are leading a campaign for more radical changes to the Bill to stop all nutrition and hydration being withdrawn from patients.

Ms Curtis-Thomas, the Labour MP for Crosby, made a speech on the Bill's second reading, telling how her mother had signed a living will, but after a stroke left her incapacitated, she blinked out that she wanted to live.

A total of 89 MPs signed a Commons motion tabled by Mr Duncan Smith saying the Bill could breach the Human Rights Act by allowing the withdrawal of life-sustaining treatment.

Senior Labour backbenchers including Gerald Kaufman are demanding a free vote on the Bill as a conscience issue.

Labour MPs were told in their weekly notice from the whips' office that there would be a three-line whip to support the Bill.

Another member of the group, the veteran Labour backbencher Kevin McNamara, has told friends: "It's so major, I don't care whether they give us a free vote. I am voting against it."

Ministers have privately accused pro-life supporters of hijacking the Bill to tighten the existing common law. One minister said: "It has been hijacked by the pro-life group for their own ends. They want to tighten up the law from its present position to stop all forms of sustenance being withdrawn."

A former minister said: "There is concern among a lot of MPs that it has tipped the balance too far towards euthanasia by another name. Lord Falconer has been holding a series of meetings to try to get the balance right, but we think more needs to be done." The Bill implements recommendations by the Law Commission in 1995. Much of the measure is non-controversial, enabling patients who are incapable of making their own decisions to be cared for and treated humanely. For example, it would allow a dentist to treat an adult suffering from Alzheimer's disease without the patient signing the consent form.

However, part of the Bill that has raised hackles seeks to enshrine in statute the High Court ruling in the case of Tony Bland, who was left in a coma after the Hillsborough disaster.

Three law lords allowed his food supply by tube to be cut off so that he could die.

The Bill has raised complex arguments over what form of treatment can be withdrawn legally. Ministers deny it allows food and drink to be withdrawn, and insist that tube-feeding amounts to medical treatment. The pro-life group rejects that argument, and is seeking to ensure that patients continue to get tube-feeding, even if they have signalled in a living will that they wish to be allowed to die.

The Labour MP Frank Field said: "They are defining food and drink as medicine. It is nonsense. When you go into Asda, nobody thinks that the food and drink are medicines."

Some believe that the Bill does not go far enough, because withdrawing tube-feeding still does not allow patients to die with dignity.

Frank Kennedy, a former engineer, whose wife died in a hospice, said that the current law, allowing withdrawal of food and water, but not allowing a lethal injection, was inhumane. "You wouldn't treat an animal like that."

Dr Howard Stoate, a Labour MP and family doctor, who is supporting amendments to the bill to ensure it does not allow euthanasia, told The Independent that allowing mercy killing by doctors would be a "slippery slope" which would destroy patient trust.

Dr Stoate, who practises medicine in his constituency in Dartford, Kent, said doctors had to take life-or-death decisions every day of the week, but requests for living wills were rare in his experience.

THE 'PRO-LIFE' DAUGHTER

Claire Curtis-Thomas, the Labour MP for Crosby, a member of the Pro-Life group, said her mother signed a "living will" to refuse sustenance after having a massive stroke but later changed her mind after a having a second stroke five years later

Doctors asked me to think very seriously about the matter because they thought that if they gave her food she might survive for quite a long time and that not doing so might hasten her death.

I went to my mother that evening to talk to her. I sat down next to her bed and said, 'We have choices to make, Mum. Tomorrow, they want to operate on you, insert a peg and you'll receive food. If you say yes, there is a likelihood you will live for quite some time. If you say no, you will die of starvation. You'll be quite comfortable because I'll make sure you're hydrated and you won't have this terrible thirst'.

I made sure my mother understood what I was saying. In the morning, I went back to my mother and she blinked out, 'I want to live'. I had to go to the doctor and say, 'My mother has now given permission; get on with the operation, please'.''

If my mother had not had me, all I believe would have happened is she would have starved to death ... She did not want to die. She wanted to live ... She did not need any medical treatment to stay alive - she needed water and food. She lived for five years in that condition. She was a grandmother for five years; she was my mother for five years. I would argue that, in many ways, they were the best five years of her life.

THE 'PRO-CHOICE' WIDOWER

Frank Kennedy, 77, a former engineering lecturer, from Eltham, south London, watched his wife, Maureen, 79, a former infants' school headmistress, die in a coma in a hospice. He said the Bill would allow the 'torture' of a lingering death to continue. He thinks doctors should have the right to administer a lethal injection of morphine

My wife had a multiple melanoma of the bone marrow. It went on for 20 months. I was looking after her 24 hours a day. There were 18 drugs a day and 20 on Tuesdays. Eventually, she went into a hospice. They got to the point were they could no longer give her food or drink. She had no water and no food for four to six days. They were effectively starving her to death. They knew the outcome. The end is absolutely horrendous. It went on for days, with gurgling in her throat. It was harrowing. She was gasping for breath and fighting. I said to the doctor, 'Can't you give her a shot, an extra dose of morphine? Why can't you let her drift off with a bit of dignity.' She said it was a question of ethics. I said, 'To hell with your ethics, if you did this to an animal you would be prosecuted.' They should be allowed a mercy killing. It is a question of humanity. Nobody would want to go through that. Nobody is going to gain from prolonging it. She was not conscious. There was no drip. Maureen once said to me, 'Why don't they let me die?' It is undignified. It's prolonged and painful. You cannot make a case for this, prolonging life. It is torture.My sort of case is repeated every day in hospices all around the country.

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