Intended for healthcare professionals


UK House of Lords rejects physician assisted suicide

BMJ 2006; 332 doi: (Published 18 May 2006) Cite this as: BMJ 2006;332:1169
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. BMJ

    A bill to legalise physician assisted suicide was thrown out by the UK parliament's second chamber, the House of Lords, last week, after a day of impassioned debate. The private member's bill, tabled by the crossbench peer Joel Joffe, was derailed when peers voted 148 to 100 to delay it for six months.

    The rarely used amendment to delay the bill was tabled by the Liberal Democrat peer and criminal lawyer Alex Carlile QC, who described the bill as “morally indefensible.”

    The Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill, which would allow only physician assisted suicide and not voluntary euthanasia, is closely modelled on the law that has been in place for eight years in the US state of Oregon.

    It has tight safeguards, which Sheila McLean, the director of the centre of law and ethics in medicine at Glasgow University, argued last week would give patients better protection than the current situation under which, although euthanasia is illegal, research shows that it happens both with and without patients' consent.

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    Lord Joffe: “In the next session, I will reintroduce the bill”


    A YouGov survey for Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) found that 76% of people were in favour of assisted dying as long as there were safeguards in place.

    But peers were bombarded with literature from Catholics and the pressure group Care Not Killing, which represents 30 charities and healthcare groups, and disability groups launched a new campaign—Not Dead Yet—to oppose the bill. The Royal College of Physicians and the Royal College of General Practitioners also came out against the bill, and the BMA maintained its neutral stance.

    More than 80 peers turned out to speak on the bill, a huge number for a Friday sitting.

    The opposition was led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, who said that the bill sent out a message that “certain kinds of life are not worth living.”

    Others who spoke against it included Robert Winston, the infertility specialist and Lord Ian McColl, a surgeon and Conservative spokesman on health.

    Those supporting the bill included the Labour peers Baroness Margaret Jay and 92 year old Nora David, who said, “If I were terminally ill, I believe I would be the only person with the right to decide how I died and whether I preferred palliative care to assisted dying. It would provide me with an additional option on how to end my life, which I would find tremendously reassuring.”

    A determined Lord Joffe said that he was not deterred. “In the next session, I will reintroduce the bill and will continue doing so until a full debate, through all the usual stages, has actually been held in accordance with the traditions that have always been followed in this House.”

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