Letter: Effects of 'living wills' on doctors, carers and the law

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Sir: The Voluntary Euthanasia Society (VES) welcomes the development by the Terrence Higgins Trust (THT) and Kings College Centre for Medical Law and Ethics of a living will for people with HIV and Aids. However, you quote the THT's chairman, Martyn Taylor, as saying that the trust's form is the most fully researched and complete document of its kind.

I am not sure how a sweeping statement such as this can be made. In 15 years of research and practical experience in the field of advance directives, the VES has laid the groundwork for passive euthanasia - which is often what advance directives and living wills ask for. We - and our members - have received condemnation for these documents, which we are delighted to see are now receiving widespread acceptance.

However, our work is not yet over. The approval of the British Medical Association is a great step forward, but we must not forget that the law regarding advance directives is not just ambiguous, it is also a complete mess.

For example, doctors caring for Hillsborough victim Tony Bland have been told by the Home Office that if they don't prolong his life by the use of antibiotics for an infection, they could be charged with murder. In the absence of case law, the Home Office is surely guessing at this judgment. The practice in hospitals and hospices up and down the country is that doctors are compassionately allowing certain patients to die by withholding or withdrawing treatment. This, technically, is passive euthanasia.

In order to prevent advance directives or living wills being followed furtively and fearfully, it is crucial that the law regarding passive euthanasia and the patient's right to refuse treatment is clarified. For this reason, the VES is strongly supporting a Private Member's Bill to give legal force to advance directives and protect doctors who follow them.

Yours sincerely,

JOHN OLIVER

General Secretary

The Voluntary Euthanasia Society (Exit)

London, W8

8 September

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