Policy and Politics: Euthanasia Bill under Lords scrutiny

Indira Das-Gupta

A charity has played a key role in promoting the Assisted Dying Bill.

As a special House of Lords Select Committee considers the Assisted Dying Bill for the Terminally Ill proposed by Lord Joel Joffe, the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (VES) will be waiting with bated breath.

The imminent report of the committee marks a significant achievement for the VES, which has made the running over the Bill and is pursing a long-term, carefully judged campaign.

Keith Reed, the charity's parliamentary officer, says: "Private Members' Bills do not normally get pre-legislative scrutiny like this. The committee called more than 100 witnesses, so it has really heard all the arguments."

The last time the issue was examined was by the Medical Ethics Committee in 1994, and its view that the law should not be changed has guided policy ever since. But as Reed explains: "A lot has changed since then. There was the case of Diane Pretty and the emergence of Dignitas, and places such as Oregon in the US, the Netherlands, Belgium and Switzerland have all got assisted dying laws. Attitudes have changed a lot.

"We knew there was no chance of a Government Bill on this, so we decided the House of Lords would be the best route. Having debates there seems to take the heat out of emotional subjects."

Two years ago, the VES approached Lord Joffe, a former member of Nelson Mandela's legal team and a known liberal, and asked him to introduce a Private Member's Bill. He agreed and introduced the Patient (Assisted Dying) Bill, which was endorsed by the House of Lords and House of Commons Joint Committee on Human Rights. Following a lot of interest, it ran out of time.

Joffe then reintroduced it as the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill in the new parliamentary session, incorporating changes based on suggestions by palliative care specialists. The current proposals only concern people who have six to 12 months left to live.

Joffe felt that the Bill's chances would be improved if a special House of Lords Select Committee could look in to it. His application was successful after the VES managed to mobilise support so that more than 100 MPs turned up for the second reading, despite it being held late on a Friday night.

Reed says: "We managed to generate a lot of interest, and the House of Lords decided that it was something people really wanted looking into."

A recent poll conducted on behalf of the VES showed that 82 per cent of the public are in favour of changing the law. The Lords received 100 submissions in favour of the Bill, many from elderly or disabled supporters.

Of course, none of this ensures the Bill's passage. Even if the committee endorses it, it still has to face a vote in the Commons. Yet Reed talks about "when" not "if" the Bill is passed.

KEY POINTS

- A special House of Lords Select Committee is currently considering Lord Joffe's Assisted Dying Bill

- The committee's report will not determine the BIll's future but will be influential

- The last Bill on this topic ran out of parliamentary time

- The current proposals concern only those with six to 12 months left to live

- The Lords has received 100 submissions in favour of the Bill.

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