December 16, 2009

UK: MPs back doctors' right to help their patients die

. LONDON, England / The Times / News / December 16, 2009 (Alamy) By Rosemary Bennett, Social Affairs Correspondent More than half of MPs believe that the law should be changed to allow doctors to help terminally ill patients to die without fear of prosecution, according to a new poll. The findings, showing a significant shift in support for assisted suicide, come on the final day of consultation on draft guidelines on the issue. The Director of Public Prosecutions had been ordered to issue guidelines by the law lords, who said that the current lack of clarity in the law was a violation of human rights. The draft rules give no immunity against prosecution but list factors that would weigh against any charges. They include that the person assisting in the suicide is “wholly motivated by compassion”, is a spouse, partner, close relative or close friend “within the context of a long-term and supportive relationship” or became involved “as a consequence of his or her usual lawful employment”. The final guidelines will be issued in March. The British Medical Association said that they needed to be clarified further so that GPs and others knew where they stood. The association itself opposes assisted suicide and doctors taking any role in it. The last time that MPs voted on the issue was in 1997, when almost three quarters voted against “doctor assisted dying”. The latest poll, conducted by Ipsos MORI, found that 53 per cent of the MPs were in favour of doctors being spared prosecution as long as the patient was terminally ill, of sound mind and had made a direct request to die. A poll by The Times this year revealed overwhelming public support for a change in the law. Three quarters of those polled said that they wanted doctors to be allowed to help terminally ill patients to end their lives. Support was particularly strong among those aged 55 to 64. Six out of ten also wanted friends and relatives to be allowed to help terminally ill people to die without fear of prosecution. Until now MPs have shown little enthusiasm for getting involved in the issue, preferring to leave the law to be interpreted by the police and courts. It is a criminal offence to assist in the death of another person, yet no one has been prosecuted for helping a friend or relative to die at the Dignitas clinic in Zurich, where more than 100 British people have ended their lives since it opened in 1998. Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, which commissioned the Commons poll, said that she was cautious about reading too much into it but that the results suggested that MPs were taking notice of public support for change. She said that surveys in the past indicated that MPs and the public were poles apart on the issue but that the Ipsos results renewed her belief that it was not a case of if the law would change but when it would change. She added: “Whilst the questions asked across each of these surveys do differ, they provide an indication of change.” A spokesman for Care not Killing, which opposes all forms of assisted suicide, dismissed the findings as not representative. He said: “What it does recognise is that this was a very complicated issue. I am confident all those parliamentarians who responded would back our view that the maximum amount of discretion needs to reside with DPP in determining whether or not to prosecute. “In terms of the draft guidelines, we are deeply concerned that the document as proposed makes a distinction between able-bodied people and disabled people, and that cannot be right in a civilised society.” The law lords demanded clarity in a ruling in the summer in the case of Debbie Purdy. Ms Purdy, 46, from Bradford, West Yorkshire, has primary progressive multiple sclerosis and succeeded in arguing that it was a breach of her human rights not to know whether her husband would be prosecuted if he accompanied her to the Dignitas clinic, where she wishes to die if her condition worsens. [rc] Ipsos MORI conducted face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of more than 100 MPs. Copyright 2009 Times Newspapers Ltd.