Keep ban on assisted suicide, say doctors

More than 60 per cent of GPs want assisted suicide to remain illegal, but there are fears that support for a change in the law is growing.

A survey of GPs found that 38 per cent said they wanted the ban lifted. The same proportion said they would be prepared to help a patient end their life if it were legal to do so.

The poll was carried out by GP newspaper, who asked 460 GPs for their views on the issue.

The last time major attempts were made to legalise euthanasia doctors specialising in end-of-life care were overwhelmingly opposed to the suggestion.

A survey of members of the Association for Palliative Medicine in 2006 found that 94 per cent were against any change in the law.

A similar poll by the Royal College of Physicians the same year showed that 73 per cent of its members also opposed a review.

However, a spokeswoman for Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, said the new numbers could make a law change “plausible”.

She said: “At the very least, the BMA should have another debate and change its stance to neutral.”

But Dr Tony Calland, chairman of the ethics committee of the British Medical Association (BMA), said: “The BMA has made it absolutely clear that it does not support any change to laws surrounding euthanasia.

“There has been a debate twice in parliament and at the annual BMA conference.

“The last BMA debate in 2006 quite clearly showed that the profession was against euthanasia.”

Similarly, a spokeman for the Royal College of General Practitioners said: “The college firmly believes that with current improvements in palliative care, good clinical care can be provided within existing legislation.

“Assisted dying has been one of the most debated issues in the history of the college.

“A clear decision has been reached by our council – we do not support a change in legislation that would permit assisted dying.”

The BMA’s Dr Calland warned that making the practice legal could put vulnerable patients, worried about becoming a burden on carers, under pressure to end their lives.

There are also concerns that patients seeking assisted suicide may be suffering from treatable depression.

Researchers in the US state of Oregon, where assisted suicide is legal, found last year that some patients seeking assisted suicide met the criteria for depression but were still prescribed lethal drugs.

Palliative care expert Dr David Jeffrey is strongly opposed to the idea of allowing doctors to help patients end their lives.

He said last year that the real question is whether the small group “who have an exaggerated need for control” should be able to demand the help of medics to commit suicide.

Writing in the BBC’s Scrubbing Up online column, Dr Jeffrey said: “It is also commonly assumed that patients who carry out PAS (physician-assisted suicide) must be suffering terrible pain.

“However, the patients who use PAS in Oregon are generally not in pain, but wish to use PAS simply so that they can control the timing of their death.”

Dr Jeffrey points to plans for improvements in palliative care in Scotland, where an MSP is currently working on a bid to legalise assisted suicide.

He says: “Such legislation is not compatible with maintaining and improving the high standards of palliative care which exist in Scotland today.

“Palliative care values individuals to the end of their natural lives and strives to relieve suffering of patients and their families.

“Every country or state which has legalised euthanasia or PAS has a lower level of palliative care than Scotland.”

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