Response to the Lord Chancellor of England’s threat to jail or fine doctors for refusing to end lives


An international organization of Catholic Obstetricians and Gynaecologists

Response to the Lord Chancellor of England’s threat to jail or fine doctors for refusing to end lives.


Well over half a century ago the Euthanasia Society of America proposed legislation to legalise ' voluntary ‘ euthanasia but the Society hoped " eventually to legalise putting to death non-volunteers " since euthanasia was "needed mainly for defectives" -- New York Times, Jan.27, 1938 {Senander, Mary "The Living Will"(1996) p.10 The Leaflet Missal Company, St. Paul, Minnesota 55104}

The concept of the 'living will' was first mooted in the United States in 1967 while, in November, 1994 Oregon became the first jurisdiction in the world to legalise euthanasia, through its " Death with Dignity " Act.

In 1939, the news of the signing by Adolf Hitler of an order effectively putting to death a quarter of a million handicapped persons because, during wartime, they were a burden on the State, resulted in widespread horror.

Recently, the Lord Chancellor of England has warned doctors that they risk being charged with assault through refusing to assist patients who have made 'living wills' to die. It appears that elderly, infirm, non-productive citizens represent an increasing burden on the State -- shades of Nazi Germany!!

What is really at stake in the Lord Chancellor's directive is the question of conscience, conscience being the expression of the natural law. " Deep within his conscience, man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself, but which he must obey. Its voice ever calling him to do what is good and to avoid evil, tells him inwardly at the right moment: do this, shun that. For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. His dignity lies in observing this law, and by it he will be judged . . . His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths." (Vatican 11. Gaudeum et Spes. 16)

Everyone has the God-given right to freedom of conscience. In the same way as such freedom may not be circumscribed or conditional so too must the right to conscientious objection be respected. To maintain otherwise would constitute a violation of human rights.

With the United Kingdom Government's intent to enforce 'living wills' the Lord Chancellor's threat to doctors has to be addressed. 'Assault' is 'the common law misdemeanour consisting of an unlawful attempt to do with violence a corporal wrong to another person' -- 'battery' is such a wrong carried out. It is difficult to see why a refusal by a doctor to assist a patient in dying could be construed as assault within its definition at common law. One cannot imagine a Court sustaining a charge of assault in such circumstances and, should it do so, an appeal would lie with the European Court of Human Rights where, most likely, the doctor would be vindicated.

The best advice to a doctor -- or nurse-- in relation to 'living wills' would be to invoke conscientious objection at the outset.