By Simon Caldwell
A MOVE to outlaw involuntary euthanasia this week received the overwhelming support of Britain's medical ethics groups.
Right to Life, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, Alert, Care, the Guild of Catholic Doctors, SOS-NHS Patients in Danger, First Do No Harm and the Medical Ethics Alliance united to back the Private Member's Bill introduced by Ann Winterton MP into the House of Commons on Wednesday.
The Bill aims to reinforce the laws prohibiting euthanasia, which many doctors, nurses and families allege is being increasingly practiced in National Health Service hospitals since the Bland Judgment in 1993 allowed doctors to withdraw food and fluids from some vegetative patients with the permission of the courts.
The groups are also alarmed at new British Medical Association guidelines which recommend that life-ending decisions of all patients, even those not dying, are made by just two doctors and not by the High Court.
The police are investigating some 60 complaints from doctors, nurses and bereaved relatives — though Health Minister John Hutton insists patients have not been killed while in the care of the NHS. Julia Quenzler of SOS-NHS has since accused the Mr Hutton of interference in the process of justice by taking such a position. She believes the Government is nervous of a single case opening floodgates to "hundreds" of others.
She said: "For the Government to pre judge the police and Crown Prosecution Service investigations smacks of undue influence and is clearly prejudicial against those seeking justice.
"This is an irresponsible and dangerous position for the Government to adopt because it gives a green light for criminal activity and fails to protect our most vulnerable citizens."
The groups are urging their supporters to write to their MPs and are planning a mass lobby of Parliament in the New Year. The Bill, which has cross-party support but not that of the Government, will receive its second reading on January 28.
Mrs Winterton said: "There is a high level of concern being expressed at the treatment of the elderly and the vulnerable. My Bill will address that problem.
"I have no doubt I have a great deal of support in the Commons, in the Lords and in the country."
Central to the debate will be the claim by the Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, and the BMA, the doctors' union, that the starving and dehydrating of patients to death does not constitute euthanasia.
MPs, pressure groups and the Church, however, say it is euthanasia by omission and claim the guidelines, called Withholding and Withdrawing Medical Treatment, have the aim of protecting doctors who have killed from prosecution because euthanasia is illegal.
The guidelines, though hiot legally binding, provide protection because doctors are unlikely to be punished by the courts if they carefully abide by the advice of their union.
Dr Tony Cole of the Medical Ethics Alliance, a group made up of 6,000 doctors opposed to euthanasia, told a Commons meeting this week that the BMA hoped to establish legal euthanasia around a "body of practice".
He said: "The BMA is clearly concerned that doctors may be criticised and wish to protect doctors and through a code, influence the courts."