Comment by Archbishop Peter Smith on Mental Capacity Bill

 As the Mental Capacity Bill reached the Committee Stage in the House of Lords Committee Stag last Tuesday, Archbishop Peter Smith, Chairman of the Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship of the Bishops Conference of England and Wales, issued the following statement. The main worry very many people have had about this Bill is whether it might inadvertently allow the spread of euthanasia by omission, that is by the deliberate withdrawing or withholding of life-sustaining treatment in order to bring about the death of the person. To meet this concern, the government is tabling at committee stage today a new clause 4(5), which marks a very significant step forward. It makes explicit that the Bill does not give authority to doctors, proxies or other third parties considering a patient's best interests to make any decision motivated by a desire to kill the person. In doing so it provides a welcome and necessary safeguard but with the important caveat, however, that it does not cover advance decisions. A major innovation in this Bill is that it gives advance decisions to refuse treatment (so called 'living wills' ) statutory force. This is a step which carries high risks about which we have expressed strong concern from the outset. Although some significant improvements have been made to this part of the Bill already, many of us have consistently argued that additional safeguards are still needed if the innovation is not to impel assistance in suicide by omission to become a part of medical responsibilities. The concern on which we have focussed in our most recent discussions with the Lord Chancellor relates to valid written advance decisions by persons who are not dying but who want to kill themselves. Faced with an unconscious suicidal patient whose life they could save, doctors might be forced to do nothing because of the legally binding advance decision forbidding them to treat. They are then having to stand by and effectively assist a suicide when they could stop it succeeding. We believe an amendment is needed to send a clear signal that the Bill does not give validity to expressly suicidal advance decisions, and have proposed an amendment that we believe would not overburden doctors in these difficult cases. I very much welcome the continuing dialogue in which many of us who have been concerned to ensure this important Bill carries the necessary safeguards have had with the government. I hope that the government will continue to reflect on the strong case for such an amendment, and that it will make its way into the Bill. Source: CCS

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