February 23, 2024


 British doctors have been told that they risk jail or lawsuits for damages if they fail to allow patients who have made living wills to die. A senior cabinet minister, Lord Falconer, has set out guidelines to the Labour Government’s Mental Capacity Act, which become effective next year. Living wills, which can be made years in advance, often stipulate that if a patient becomes incapacitated, doctors should withdraw food and water. The new act gives their wishes legal force. Conscientious objectors are required to pass the patient to another doctor who will carry out the living will.

Critics of the act say that it raises the possibility that a doctor who refuses to kill a patient could go to jail, or that relatives could sue him for not killing a patient, or even that a patient who recovers could sue because he did not die.

Dr Peter Saunders, head of the Christian Medical Fellowship, says that "we are concerned that patients will make unwise and hasty advance refusals of food and fluids without being properly informed about the diagnosis. It is too easy for patients to be driven by fears of meddlesome treatment and ‘being kept alive’, into making advance refusals that later might be used against them… Commonly patients change their minds about what care they would like, as their condition changes."

He complains that the law does not support conscientious objection: A doctor who believes it would be clinically wrong to withdraw food and fluids must pass their patient over to another doctor who will do so. That makes them complicit in the death."

Critics have also seized upon the ease with which a living will can be made. A patient need not even sign his name to a document if he is too ill. And doctors who allow patients to die, even if the will was not valid, will not be prosecuted.