Leading doctors fear that fellow practitioners could help someone kill themselves but avoid prosecution under proposed guidance on prosecuting assisted suicide cases.
The British Medical Association (BMA) have asked Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), for “further clarification” about the role of doctors under proposed guidelines, which are due to be finalised next year.
In September Mr Starmer issued interim guidance outlining the public interest factors he will consider before deciding to pursue assisted suicide cases.
The DPP made it clear that assisted suicide was still illegal.
He will finalise his guidelines next year after a public consultation is completed.
But the BMA are particularly concerned about one factor which suggests a prosecution would be less likely if someone helped a victim kill themselves “as a consequence of his or her usual lawful employment”.
In a consultation response to the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) on the proposed changes, the BMA asked Mr Starmer to clarify exactly to whom the new guidance is referring.
Dr Tony Calland, chairman of the BMA’s ethics committee, said they wanted to make sure the new rules did not make it easier for doctors to help patients to die.
In the response, the BMA said: “Although the interim policy makes it absolutely clear that helping or encouraging another person to end his or her life remains a criminal offence, the BMA feels that some further clarification of (this) factor would be helpful.”
A CPS spokesman said the wording was intended to refer to taxi drivers or pilots who played a part in taking people to suicide facilities overseas.
Mr Starmer was ordered to issue a policy statement by the Law Lords who ruled in favour of a legal challenge by assisted suicide campaigner Debbie Purdy.
Miss Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, wants to know what would happen to her husband if he helped her travel overseas to commit suicide and said the current law is not clear.
Mr Starmer has said that his new guidance applies equally to suicides assisted in the UK and overseas.
Writing in the Daily Telegraph today, commentator George Pitcher said: “It will be doctors who kill off the nasty and sinister attempt of Law Lords to introduce euthanasia to the UK through Parliament’s back door”.
He said there is an overwhelming majority of doctors committed to the principles of their profession who oppose assisted suicide and any attempts by the legal profession to “move the goal posts”.
Mr Pitcher warned that the “euthanasia freaks are trying to give their death cult some clinical respectability”.
He pointed out that the “law under which British doctors practice is there, with proper vigilance in the future, to prevent another Harold Shipman going unnoticed”.
• The victim was under 18 years of age;
• The victim’s capacity to reach an informed decision was adversely affected by a recognised mental illness or learning difficulty;
• The victim did not have a clear, settled and informed wish to commit suicide; for example, the victim’s history suggests that his or her wish to commit suicide was temporary or subject to change;
• The victim did not indicate unequivocally to the suspect that he or she wished to commit suicide;
• The victim did not ask personally on his or her own initiative for the assistance of the suspect;
• The victim did not have a terminal illness; or a severe and incurable physical disability; or a severe degenerative physical condition from which there was no possibility of recovery;
• The suspect was not wholly motivated by compassion; for example, the suspect was motivated by the prospect that they or a person closely connected to them stood to gain in some way from the death of the victim;
• The suspect persuaded, pressured or maliciously encouraged the victim to commit suicide, or exercised improper influence in the victim’s decision to do so; and did not take reasonable steps to ensure that any other person did not do so.
The public interest factors against a prosecution include that:
• The victim had a clear, settled and informed wish to commit suicide;
• The victim indicated unequivocally to the suspect that he or she wished to commit suicide;
• The victim asked personally on his or her own initiative for the assistance of the suspect;
• The victim had a terminal illness or a severe and incurable physical disability or a severe degenerative physical condition from which there was no possibility of recovery;
• The suspect was wholly motivated by compassion;
• The suspect was the spouse, partner or a close relative or a close personal friend of the victim, within the context of a long-term and supportive relationship;
• The actions of the suspect, although sufficient to come within the definition of the offence, were of only minor assistance or influence, or the assistance which the suspect provided was as a consequence of their usual lawful employment.