By John Martin

On Sept. 11 the House of Commons will vote on a bill to allow people with terminal illnesses to take their own lives with the assistance of doctors. If the bill passes in this second reading stage of the Parliamentary process, little will stand in the way of its becoming law.

The bill would allow euthanasia for mentally competent adults who are deemed to have less than six months to live. They would need the consent of a high-court judge and two doctors.

Belgium, the Netherlands, and the American states of Oregon, Vermont, and Washington have similar laws. The bill closely follows Oregon’s laws and recycles a bill by Lord Charles Falconer that ran out of time in the last Parliament.

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The major disability organizations in the U.K. generally oppose the bill, as do the British Medical Association, the Association for Palliative Medicine, and the British Geriatric Society.

Heading up the case in favor is a network named Dignity in Dying, formed in the 1930s and until recently known as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society. Dignity in Dying’s case has gained resonance from well-timed celebrity statements and highly publicized deaths of Britons ending their lives at the Dignitas Clinic in Zurich, Switzerland. The group claims to have a majority of the public on its side.

Church of England representatives have released statements opposing the bill. One of the clearest voices is Care Not Killing, comprising Roman Catholic, evangelical Protestant, and disability networks.

“The reality is that Britain’s law on assisted suicide is clear and right and is working well,” said Dr. Peter Saunders, campaign director of Care Not Killing.

The waters have been muddied somewhat by the Most Rev. George L. Carey, the 103rd Archbishop of Canterbury, supporting the bill.

“In my view it is a profoundly Christian and moral thing to devise a law that enables people if they so choose to end their lives with dignity,” he has said.

Supporting him are faith leaders including Baroness Kathleen Richardson, a former chair of the Methodist Conference, the Rt. Rev. Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham (suffragan in the Diocese of Oxford), and Rabbi Danny Rich, chief executive of Liberal Judaism.

Lord Carey says it would be possible to construct a tight law that would not lead to unintended consequences. Contrary voices say that passing the bill into law would mean pressure on sick and vulnerable people to end their lives, and in any case doctors rarely can predict time of death with precision.

It is clear, however, that while palliative medicine possesses the skills to save people from excruciatingly painful deaths, other branches of medicine are better funded. And that signals the need for a wider discussion about care for the elderly, weak and dying.

Image by TheBrassGlass, via morgueFile

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