Euthanasia: Present law protects doctors and patients

BMJ 1994; 309 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.309.6952.471a (Published 13 August 1994) Cite this as: BMJ 1994;309:471
  1. A M Smith

    EDITOR, - A P M Heintz raises important issues in his editorial.1 He correctly distinguishes euthanasia (“a medical act that deliberately shortens the life of a seriously ill patient at his or her request”) from the perfectly legal withdrawal or withholding of burdensome and unavailing treatments which only prolong or add to suffering. The recent recommendations of the Select Committee of the House of Lords2 uphold the rights of patients to refuse treatments which they do not wish to undergo, and urge the importance of doctors continuing to balance burdensomeness against benefit when advising on treatment.

    The present law protects both doctor and patient. The patient feels that life is no longer worth living, but the moral stance behind the law reflects that a person's life is valuable per se - not because of what the person contributes or does, but because the person is a person. In rejecting legalisation of euthanasia, British society and its doctors are declaring the importance of protecting the weak, the disabled, and the dying - and in so doing declaring the dignity of human life. The Select Committee has pointed out that this demands increasing research and facilities for the care of such people.

    Unfortunately the Dutch figures3 confirm that when voluntary euthanasia becomes ethically acceptable to the limited extent that it is in Holland, non-voluntary euthanasia is an inevitable accompaniment. Van der Wal and Dillmann acknowledge that the 1990 figures report more than 1000 occasions of non-voluntary euthanasia - when someone decided that another person's life was not worth living.4 So much for autonomy.

    Lord Walton reflected on this in his speech to the House of Lords on 9 May 1994 when he said: “One compelling reason underlying this conclusion was that we do not think it is possible …

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