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The Report on Euthanasia

a) Summary

On the 5th September, the Council of Europe’s Committee on Social, Health and Family Affairs voted by a narrow margin to adopt the Report on Euthanasia prepared by Dick Marty.

The report was produced following the Committee’s Hearing on Euthanasia in October 2002 which was attended by representatives of several Right to Die Europe societies. The report notes that assisted dying already takes place, regardless of the law. It recommends that member states should investigate end-of-life decision-making and, in the light of such evidence, consider a change in the law which would enable doctors to assist the death of terminally-ill patients, under certain conditions. (A summary of the report is provided under Section e).

At the debate the Italian delegation opposed the Report, as did the French delegate. A UK delegate also spoke against the Report.

Whilst member States are not obliged to act on the Council of Europe’s recommendations, if the Report on Euthanasia is adopted by the Council’s Parliamentary Assembly its recommendations would lend great weight to the national campaigns of Right to Die societies. Please see Section ‘b’ for information on the most recent developments concerning the report.

b) The next stage: the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly

Now that the Committee on Social, Health and Family Affairs have voted in favour of the Report on Euthanasia, the Report must be debated and voted on by the Council of Europe’s Parliamentary Assembly.

Originally this debate was scheduled to take place on the 30th September. However, on the 29th September, the Assembly voted to postpone the debate and vote. Matyas Eorsi (Hungary), the Liberal member of the Assembly who moved that the debate should be postponed said that members had not had sufficient time to read a rather negative Opinion prepared by Kevin McNamara on behalf of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights or to investigate the issue further. (See section ‘f’ for a summary of this Opinion). It is probable that opponents of assisted dying voted in favour of postponing this debate in order to give themselves time to mobilize further opposition to the Report.

Right to Die Societies also stand to benefit from this delay, if we can use this time to lobby members of the Council of Europe effectively. It now seems likely that the Report will be debated and voted on by the Assembly during the Plenary Session which runs from the 26th-30th January 2004.

c) Right to Die Europe activity in the Council of Europe

Right to Die Europe and member societies have lobbied relevant Council of Europe representatives at every recent stage of the Report on Euthanasia’s progress. Letters providing useful information were sent on behalf of Right to Die Europe to every member of the Committee on Social, Health and Family Affairs, except Christian Democrats and other right-wing representatives. Several member societies also contacted their national representatives on the Committee, giving them information and encouraging them to attend the debate.

Right to Die Europe sent letters and emails to potentially sympathetic members of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, prior to the meeting at which an Opinion on the Report was discussed. Right to Die Europe also sent letters and emails to all members of the Council of Europe Parliamentary Assembly (except the Christian Democrats, right-wingers and known opponents) before the plenary session at which the Report was scheduled to be debated. As before, this correspondence provided relevant information and encouraged members to attend the debate and support the report.

These letters were authorised by Ron Plummer as President of Right to Die Europe. A big ‘thank you’ must go to Kitty Jager who coped with all of Right to Die Europe’s correspondence admirably.

Future Right to Die Europe action regarding the Assembly’s debate on the Report on Euthanasia will be discussed at the conference in Luxembourg.

d) Right to Die Europe talk to the Committee on Social, Health and Family Affairs

On 29th September Rob Jonquière, as Acting Secretary of Right to Die Europe, gave a presentation at a meeting of the Social, Health and Family Affairs Committee. This meeting had originally been arranged to coincide with the Assembly’s debate of the Report, so that Rob could provide Committee members with useful information for the debate. The meeting went ahead, despite the debate being postponed.

On behalf of Right to Die Europe Rob welcomed the Report’s call for further investigation of this issue. He discussed the difficulty of reconciling the laws of countries which had such a range of cultural traditions, but suggested that the Netherlands’ approach might serve as a model. As the CEO of NVVE he took the opportunity to correct Kevin McNamara’s false claims regarding study findings in the Netherlands.

Lisette Tiddens-Engwirda also gave a presentation to the meeting on behalf of the Standing Committee of European Doctors, an organisation which opposes a change in the law.

The Committee discussed the Report, and rejected the first four amendments to the report proposed in the Opinion of the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights. The remaining amendments will be discussed at the Committee’s next meeting, on November 21st.

The press were permitted to attend the meeting, and Rob later gave television interviews to journalists from France, Switzerland and Poland.

For the Council of Europe’s report on this meeting (which details some of the opinions given by Committee members) go here .

e) Content of the Report on Euthanasia

The Report on Euthanasia, as it currently stands, notes:

  1. “Where terminally-ill patients undergo constant, unbearable and suffering without hope of any improvement in their condition, some doctors and medical staff are willing [to assist a patient’s death or suicide]”;
  2. Without procedures or control, “[it] is this reality that carries the greatest risk of abuse”;
  3. There is a “striking divergence between the law and what happens in practice.” Penal and professional sanctions are extremely rare by comparison with the number of cases of assisted dying. Critically, the report states, “This gap must be reconciled if respect for the rule of law is to be maintained” (own emphasis added);
  4. Dutch and Belgian legislation has been designed to address these concerns.

The report states:

“Nobody has the right to impose on the terminally-ill and the dying the obligation to live out their life in unbearable suffering and anguish where they themselves have persistently expressed the wish to end it. [… This] development can in no way be interpreted as the expression of lesser consideration for human life.”

It calls on governments of the member States of the Council of Europe:

  1. To collect and analyse empirical evidence about end-of-life decisions, public attitudes, the experience of medical practitioners and the jurisprudence of the courts;
  2. To promote comparative analysis and discussion (both public, and within the Council of Europe) of such evidence, taking into account in particular the results of the Belgian and Netherlands legislation;
  3. “In the light of such evidence and discussion, to consider whether legislation should be envisaged, where it has not already been introduced, to exempt from prosecution doctors who agree to help terminally-ill patients undergoing constant, unbearable pain and suffering without hope of any improvement in their condition, to end their lives at their persistent, voluntary and well-considered request, subject to prescribed rigorous and transparent conditions and procedures.”

To access a full copy of the Report on Euthanasia go here .

f) The Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights’ Draft Opinion on the Report on Euthanasia

The Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights appointed Kevin McNamara, a Socialist representative of the UK parliament to prepare the Committee’s Opinion on the Report on Euthanasia. Mr McNamara is known by VES UK to be Christian and opposed to a change of law. The Opinion which was adopted by the Committee on the 17th September was not favourable.

The Opinion acknowledged that “A small minority of doctors and other medical staff are willing to conduct “voluntary active euthanasia”. However, it proposed to delete from the Report on Euthanasia the statement that the gap between the law and its application must be reconciled if respect for the rule of law is to be maintained.

The Opinion proposed to insert into the Report some extremely misleading claims about the findings of studies conducted in the Netherlands. It also proposed to replace the Reports’ recommendation that member States should collect evidence with a view to changing their law, with the recommendation that member States should simply “report back to the Parliamentary Assembly for further consideration.”