Leading legal experts have sounded the alarm bell about the dangers of legalising assisted dying or euthanasia in the UK.
Lord Carlile, the former Independent Reviewer of Terrorism Legislation, warns in a major report that the risk of abuse of euthanasia by rogue doctors is “real and horrific”.
The report describes lack of access to end of life care in the UK as “indefensible” but warns that introducing “physician-assisted suicide” could have serious consequences.
Lord Carlile says his years as a criminal barrister and his decade spent on the General Medical Council has left him “regrettably in no doubt that there are some professionals who would abuse a law permitting euthanasia.”
Writing in a foreword to the Policy Exchange report, he said: “The risk is small, but the possibility is real and horrific.”
The KC is also concerned that in Oregon, Canada and the Netherlands there have been “troubling examples” of the deaths of people who “were not suffering from clearly terminal illnesses”.
Retired Supreme Court Justice Lord Sumption also warns that if the law is changed other categories of people could be given help to die.
“What is the justification for allowing medically assisted suicide but limiting it to those believed to be close to death or in intolerable pain, actual or prospective?” he writes. “There are so many other reasons why one might want to end one’s life.Once the moral barrier has been crossed, what is the logical stopping point?”
John Keown, Georgetown University’s Professor of Christian Ethics, the author of the report, argues: “Distressing deaths, while a matter of the utmost importance – not least to those who suffer them and to their loved ones – are by themselves no more an argument for legalising physician-assisted suicide than for improving access to palliative care.
Although the UK is a world-leader in palliative care, it remains, indefensibly, unavailable to many patients.”
He expects that if certain lives were judged not “worth living” this would be “extended to many other patients, including the frail elderly and people with a range of disabilities”.
Describing the significance of a change in the law, he said: “The principle of the inviolability of life could reasonably be described as a ‘golden chain’ of English criminal law. A law that were to allow certain people to be killed or helped to kill themselves, whether on account of their illness or disability, would rupture that chain.”
Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, criticised Prof Keown’s analysis, saying: “There is no reference to those who die in pain and suffering even with the best possible care at the end of life, nor to those who feel no other option but to end their own lives in lonely and violent ways.”
He casually dismisses the 500 Britons who have made the impossible decision to use assisted dying laws in another country, at great expense and at risk of prosecution for their loved ones who accompany them.
“Professor Keown is within his rights to pontificate on the ethical arguments against assisted dying, but it is beyond callous to do so while ignoring the suffering, indignity and trauma inflicted on dying people and their families by the blanket ban on assisted dying.”
The publication of the report follows the introduction in 2021 of Baroness Meacher’s Bill to “enable adults who are terminally ill to be provided at their request with specified assistance to end their own life”.
Dr Gordon Macdonald, chief executive of Care Not Killing, said: “We need to care for people who are suffering, not encourage them or provide them with a mechanism to end their lives.
This is why we champion the extension high-quality palliative care to all those who need it and better support for their families.”
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