This is an idea whose time has come… individual autonomy and choice override public discomfort. It will still take the lily-livered MPs years to process, and with clerical opposition it will take a decade or more to come to statute,. So probably won’t help most over 70 today. Discussion is taboo in most families and this includes MPs.
The British Medical Association (BMA) will this week debate whether to drop its opposition to assisted suicide, as research shows many doctors fear a change in the law will make patients suspicious of them.
A consultation by the BMA ahead of a vote to decide whether it should adopt a neutral stance found many doctors were concerned that helping people to die went against their fundamental role of saving lives.
Members of the public expressed concern that patients might either fail to seek treatment or not inform doctors about some details of their illness for fear of being considered for an assisted death. One said: “Currently you have that barrier that it [assisted suicide] is illegal . . . Once you lift that, you will be looking at your doctor in a different way because he or she has got the power to put you down.”
The research also found that many were unaware of potential complications in assisted dying or how long it might take. In one case, according to the BMA, it took a patient 104 hours to die.
“I’m not sure if I could go into work and do what I do if part of it was having to sit with someone for 104 hours waiting for their barbiturates to kill them,” one doctor said.
However, some members of the public argued that doctors helping with the death of a relative would boost trust in the profession.
One woman, whose husband struggled with illness for nine years, said: “If I had had the choice with my husband, I would have said yes, because he was suffering for nine years. I would have kissed and hugged my doctor because he [would have] helped with my husband’s suffering and mine.”
Some doctors were worried about the guilt associated with helping someone to die too early. “If it was found that a patient who died two months ago could have still been alive, how am I going to forgive myself?” asked one.
Baroness Finlay, a palliative care doctor, said: “Most doctors agree with parliament that we should not legalise assisted suicide. A survey last year . . . revealed only one in seven would be prepared to consider such a request.”
But campaigners renewed their call on the BMA to drop its opposition, citing a YouGov survey for the charity Dignity in Dying which found just 7% backed the organisation’s current position .
Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, said: “Dying people continue to be forced to take matters into their own hands. More than one Briton a fortnight travels abroad to die and a further 300 terminally ill people take their own lives behind closed doors. The BMA should stop ignoring dying people, the wider British public and its members on this issue.”
That view was supported by Carmen Alkalai, 44, from Crouch End in north London, who in February travelled with her mother, Sandy, 62, to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland.
Her mother had suffered from severe migraines for two decades and was then diagnosed with motor neurone disease, a condition that attacks nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Within weeks, she was struggling to speak and could walk only a few yards.
Writing on a blog, Alkalai said: “What struck us . . . was how at peace my mother had become once she made the decision to go ahead with an assisted death.”
In a plea to 170,000 doctors represented by the BMA, she added: “By remaining opposed [to assisted suicide], doctors are ignoring the reality. . . that dying patients in their care are being forced to take drastic measures to have the death they want.”
The chef Prue Leith, who became a patron of Dignity in Dying after watching her brother’s slow death from bone cancer, said: “I cannot believe that doctors — whose mission should be to prevent suffering can refuse a dying patient quick release rather than an agonising death.
“The BMA is stifling debate. Maybe they are scared their members will do the humane thing and vote against the leadership.”