The Council of Europe has ruled that euthanasia and assisted suicide should be banned in every country across the Continent.
In a declaration that will have huge implications on human rights laws in its 47 member countries the Strasbourg-based organisation announced that such practices “must always be prohibited”.
The move will represent a major setback to assisted dying campaigners in the UK who want Britain to follow Holland, Belgium and Switzerland in allowing doctors to help to end the lives of their patients.
The explicit condemnation of euthanasia was inserted into a non-binding resolution entitled “Protecting Human Rights and Dignity by Taking Into Account Previously Expressed Wishes of Patients”.
The resolution had originally simply focused on the human rights questions of “advance directives”, or “living wills”, in which people set out how they wish to be treated if they became mentally incapacitated.
But members of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe argued that living wills, which became legal in the UK under the 2005 Mental Capacity Act, were inextricably connected to euthanasia.
They successfully moved an amendment forbidding euthanasia by 34 votes to 16 with six abstentions.
The amendment said that “euthanasia, in the sense of the intentional killing by act or omission of a dependent human being for his or her alleged benefit must always be prohibited”.
Among those fighting for the amendment was British member Edward Leigh, the Tory MP for Gainsborough and a Catholic.
He referred to the case of Kerrie Wooltorton, a 26-year-old from Norwich who died in 2009 by poisoning after her living will prevented doctors from resuscitating her.
He said: “Can my fellow delegates here in Strasbourg imagine how they would feel if they received a phone call informing them that one of their children had drunk poison and that ambulance and hospital staff who had everything necessary to save the child’s life stood by not helping instead as the child lay dying?
“That is a situation that advanced directives or living wills allow,” Mr Leigh said. “This is not alarmist talk – this is the historic fact, the track record.”
But Paul Flynn, the Labour MP for Newport West, fought the amendment, saying it changed the “entire nature” of the report.
“Eighty-five per cent of the people of Britain are demanding reforms and demanding change,” he said.
“We as legislators must also take into account the majority view of the people,” Mr Flynn added.
“It is an important human right to have the right to die in a manner of our choosing.”
The Council of Europe was set up in 1949 to further European integration by harmonising human rights laws, although it is unable to pass laws itself. Its new resolution on euthanasia will, however, help to define the principles that should govern the application of living wills across its member states. It will be therefore hugely influential in helping governments to resist pressure to weaken or abolish laws prohibiting assisted suicide and euthanasia.
The Council bases its work on the European Convention on Human Rights. It includes the European Court of Human Rights, which enforces the convention and to which Europeans can bring cases if they believe that a member country has violated their rights.