A leading specialist in end-of-life care has warned that allowing assisted suicide would mean terminally ill patients would no longer be able to trust their doctors.
Dr David Jeffrey, a former chairman of the ethics committee of the Association for Palliative Medicine, spoke in the wake of Baroness Warnock’s comments on euthanasia for dementia sufferers.
“If you’re demented, you’re wasting people’s lives – your family’s lives – and you’re wasting the resources of the NHS,” said Lady Warnock last month.
But Dr Jeffrey believes that patients need encouragement and affirmation at the end of their lives, rather than being made to feel that they ought to commit suicide.
“Some of those who have been prominent in campaigns to change the law have been articulate and able to express themselves confidently,” he said. “My concern is with people who are frightened, possibly depressed and bit confused.
“These are people who don’t know where to turn and who feel they are a burden. The law has to protect them.”
Dr Jeffrey said it would be very hard to maintain trust if killing someone became a treatment option.
He said that simple questions about how a patient was feeling could lead them to think, “‘Is he suggesting assisted suicide? Does he want me to top myself?'”
Dr Jeffrey has published a book this week called Against Physician Assisted Suicide. In it, he tells the story of a former army instructor who was being treated for terminal cancer and was determined to commit suicide.
After a discussion with the doctor, it emerged that he was missing the Army, and was subsequently taken to watch a passing-out parade of young recruits, where a party had been arranged in his honour.
“His life was transformed,” Dr Jeffrey said. “He had a purpose and his demeanour completely changed. He died two weeks later, comfortably. People’s lives always have that potential. Even in the midst of suffering there can be change.
“You just don’t know what will happen.”