Half of all doctors have been asked by patients to aid euthanasia, survey reveals

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Half of the doctors in Britain have had to deal with patients requesting the right to die, researchers revealed yesterday.

Half of the doctors in Britain have had to deal with patients requesting the right to die, researchers revealed yesterday.

A quarter of the medical profession was in favour of a change in the law that would allow them to help terminally ill people to end their lives. But the independent survey of more than 900 doctors, mainly GPs, commissioned by the anti-euthanasia group Right to Life, found that 60 per cent were opposed to the concept of assisted suicide.

One in 10 said they had dealt with between five and 10 patients requesting euthanasia and nine doctors had been asked for help up to 100 times.

Next month will see the second reading of a private member's Bill in the House of Lords, tabled by the former human rights lawyer Lord Joffe, which calls for the legalisation of assisted suicide for dying people.

Under the proposed law, patients would have to prove to two doctors that they were terminally ill, in unbearable pain and mentally competent to make the decision.

All other options, such as palliative care, would have to be discussed before doctors and the patient signed a consent form in the presence of a solicitor. There would then be a cooling-off period of between seven and 30 days, depending on the patient's condition, before another consultation with a doctor. Only then would the doctor be allowed to help their patient to die, usually by prescribing medication.

Deborah Annetts, chief executive of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, which is supporting Lord Joffe's Bill, said: "We don't want to see hundreds of people getting help to die, but we do want the choice for the small group of people who are terminally ill, in intolerable pain and who want to end their lives. This law would promote discussion between doctors and patients – something that does not happen at the moment."

But many doctors believe that a lack of hospice places and poor NHS resources are driving people to join assisted suicide groups.

Two thirds of doctors questioned believed that demand for euthanasia in Britain would decline if hospice and geriatric services improved.

Last month, a British couple travelled to the headquarters of Dignitas, an assisted suicide group in Geneva, and were helped to commit suicide, despite the fact that they were not terminally ill. Bob and Jenny Stokes were in wheelchairs and had decided that the constant pain of chronic conditions such as arthritis meant their lives were no longer worth living.

Dr Anthony Cole, of the Medical Ethics Alliance, which supports Right to Life, said: "It is an appalling situation that we do not have good-quality palliative care services in the UK.

"We should not be driving people to consider suicide simply because they are not getting proper pain relief, or adequate care on hospital wards."

The Doctor's Quandary

Dr Sam Everington has had to deal with people requesting the right to die – and says the issue is a moral quagmire for doctors and patients.

He works in Bow, east London, and while he supports the current ban on euthanasia, he can see a time when assisted suicide could be legalised in Britain. But first, he says, NHS services for the dying need to be improved.

"I have had patients requesting euthanasia and it can be very difficult," Dr Everington said. "I had a patient who demanded euthanasia, when what they wanted was the chance of a dignified and painless as possible death. By talking ... [we were] able to resolve the matter.

"I wouldn't judge someone saying they wanted to end their lives. If there was a proper public debate and high-quality hospice care, I could see a time when I would be able to support a patient in making the decision to die."

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