Euthanasia in Britain

The Hastings Center Report, May-June 1995 | Go to article overview

Euthanasia in Britain


Two recent British court cases inolving the deaths of patients have caught the public imagination here. The one was that of Tony Bland, a teenager in persistent vegetative state (PVS) whose doctors were authorized to withdraw parenteral nutrition; the other that of Nigel Cox, a doctor who admitted giving potassium chloride to a patient to keep her from suffering further. Partly as a result of these cases, and partly in consideration of decisions taken in the United States and the Netherlands, the government recently established a House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics, which was directed

to consider the ethical, legal and

clinical implications of a person's

right to withhold consent to life-prolonging

treatment, and the

position of persons who are no

longer able to give or withhold

consent; and to consider whether

and in what circumstances actions

that have as their intention or

likely consequence the shortening

of another person's life may

be justified ... [and] the likely

effects of changes in the law or

medical practice on society as a

whole. (House of Lords Paper 2 1) The committee began its work on 16 February 1993; took written and oral testimony from a host of governmental agencies, professional and religious bodies, voluntary organizations, and individuals; and issued its report a year to the day after it was formed. Their unanimous opinion was that while there should be no change in the law to permit euthanasia, treatment that will add nothing to a patient's well-being as a person ought not to be given.

The report provides a summary of the testimony received by the committee and its recommendations. These latter fall into four areas: voluntary euthanasia and involuntary killing, treatment-limiting decisions about incompetent patients, advance directives, and resource allocation. …

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