I promised that my next blog post would be more highbrow and, in tackling the Assisted Dying Bill, I’ve certainly delivered on that. Lord Falconer’s bill is currently being discussed and refined in the House of Lords.
In the process of blogging I hope to capture my stance on assisted dying and clear up some common misconceptions. The reasons I became a doctor are lost in the mists of time. The reasons I continue to be a doctor are to reduce or abolish the effects of illness, to enhance quality of life and to minimise suffering in my patients. It is not solely my aim to keep people alive as long as possible (unless, of course, that is the individuals’ aim!)
Despite advances in palliative care, the predictable decline into the terminal phases of cancer or other incurable conditions is rarely smooth and all too often punctuated by pain, nausea, agitation and breathlessness. Current legislation allows a terminally ill patient to decline treatment if they develop additional problems such as pneumonia. In the absence of such conditions, many find themselves having to refuse food and water in order to accelerate the process of death. On enumerable occasions, when treating palliative patients, I have been directly asked to administer medication to end their suffering. Explaining that I can not accede to their request is heart-wrenchingly difficult. Click this link to read the story of Mrs Efstratia Tuson
Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying bill, and its progress through Parliament, can be accessed by clicking here. The first point to clarify absolutely is that the bill advocates assisted dying only, not assisted suicide or euthansia. The distinction is key;
Assisted dying is already permissible in some US states. It allows terminally ill, mentally competent individuals to self-administer life-ending medication. Strict safeguards are built into this process. This is a decision for an individual patient to make and it can not be imposed by anyone else.
Assisted suicide is permitted in Switzerland. It allows assistance to die for disabled and chronically ill patients who are not dying.
Voluntary euthanasia is permitted in Belgium and the Netherlands. A doctor administers life-ending medication to a patient.
Public opinion suggests that the current law is not working and that the time is right for legislation change. Evidence from US states, particularly Oregon, where Assisted Dying is permitted, have been used to strengthen the case for change. In Oregon, in 2013, 122 patients requested an assisted death. 51 of those did not take the medication but took comfort from knowing that it was available to them. For details of Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act and its impact, click here
As a private GP in the Cotswolds, my voice is small. But I sincerely hope the collective voice’s of the entire medical profession support a change to this law. Whilst I do not take assisted dying lightly, I believe that it is the absolute right of the individual to choose how to die, in the same way that they are able to choose how to live. Politicians, clergy and doctors should not stand in the way of terminally ill patients making that decision. And it is always worth remembering that;
An assisted dying law would not result in more people dying, but in fewer people suffering