Dr Ann McPherson: The GP who believes she should be allowed help to end her life

The Monday Interview: A growing number of medical professionals are supporting the idea of assisted dying. Dr Ann McPherson – who herself has only months to live – tells Jeremy Laurance why

Some accuse her of advocating "medical killing". Others claim that she is destroying the trust between doctors and patients. But Ann McPherson is not deterred as she prepares to step up her campaign to change the law on assisted dying – at the same time as preparing for her own death.

As the joint author of a million-selling guide to teenage health (Diary of a Teenage Health Freak, now translated into 27 languages) and the founder of the first – hugely successful – website where patients could share experiences of disease ( healthtalkonline.org), she is one of the best known GPs in the country.

Those projects grew directly from her experience as the mother of three children and, later, as a patient with breast cancer, suffering the indignities familiar to millions who have had their bodies poisoned with chemotherapy but which are underplayed by doctors.

Now McPherson is putting her uncanny ability to see things from the other side of the doctor's desk at the service of a new group: the dying. Modern medicine ignores their needs, she says. She wants doctors to be allowed to help terminally ill patients end their lives.

"Death is seen as a technological defeat," she says. "Palliative care specialists see it as a failure if patients want an assisted death. I think that's ridiculous – it should be part of good palliative care. We have got into a terrible mess about keeping people alive when they shouldn't be."

The problem is personal – McPherson is herself dying. Having seen off breast cancer in the 1990s, she was diagnosed in 2007 with pancreatic cancer, one of the deadliest cancers, with a 4 per cent survival rate at five years. She had surgery – the removal of the pancreas, part of the intestine and the stomach in a major operation called a Whipple procedure. She recovered, but suffered a recurrence in 2009. This time the cancer had spread to her lungs. Now, she lives day to day, she says, each morning attaching a small vacuum pump to a tube inserted in her chest to drain the fluid that has accumulated overnight.

At 65, McPherson's illness has given her a new profile as Britain's best known terminally ill doctor. Typically, she has used it to bolster her campaign, challenging the medical establishment to lift its opposition to assisted dying. The British Medical Association and the Royal Colleges of Physicians, Anaesthetists and GPs are all against assisted dying. Only the Royal Colleges of Psychiatrists and Nurses are neutral on the issue. None is in favour.

The group McPherson launched last October, Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying, has gathered 340 members in three months by word of mouth alone, including some of the most eminent names in the profession. There are 19 professors, 32 consultants and 145 doctors. Supporters include Sir Terence English, the heart transplant pioneer; Sir Ian Chalmers, a founder of the Cochrane Collaboration for evidence-based medicine; Raymond Tallis, the former chair of the ethics committee at the Royal College of Physicians; and Sir Graeme Catto, the former head of the General Medical Council.

McPherson argues that those medical bodies which oppose assisted dying do not reflect the views of their members, which are more evenly divided. A survey in 2009 found that 39 per cent of GPs and consultants backed a change in the law to permit assisted dying, while 49 per cent opposed it. In contrast, the British Social Attitudes 2010 survey found 82 per cent of the public in favour of a change in the law.

"Our mission is to influence the medical bodies to ensure the medical voice is heard," McPherson says. "We want an open debate. I think the tide of change is sweeping over them. All the surveys show that when the public are asked, in whatever way, a majority say that people who want the option of an assisted death should have it. The profession is out of step with the public on this."

In matters of life and death, the views of doctors carry considerable weight and the opposition of the major medical bodies is thus a roadblock to reform. The defeat of Lord Joffe's Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill in May 2006 – the last attempt to change the law – was attributed in large part to the decisions of the Royal Colleges of Physicians and GPs to oppose the reform.

The Royal College of Nursing changed its stance in 2009 from outright opposition to one of studied neutrality, after its general secretary Peter Carter, acknowledged that opinion among nurses was split. McPherson wants the remaining medical colleges to do the same, leaving the issue for society to decide.

Her illness has not stopped her working. When I arrived at the large, comfortable house, full of light and colour, in north Oxford that McPherson shares with her husband, the noted epidemiologist Professor Klim McPherson, she was in a meeting with a potential donor for one of her many projects. Books, pictures and family photographs occupy every inch of wall space, and there are piles of children's things by the sofa.

McPherson has already survived much longer than she, or anyone else, expected. Always a slight figure, now she looks as if a breath of wind would carry her away. Her weight has dropped to less than eight stone – three stone below normal – but the effect is countered by the thick, dark curls that frame her narrow face, and by her steely determination.

She was born and brought up in London, the daughter of a tailor who later became an official of the Communist party. But she was closer to her mother, who died seven years ago at the age of 93 after refusing the offer of dialysis when her kidneys failed in her final weeks. "My mother was adamant about what she wanted," McPherson says. "It was very difficult because the hospital was keen to dialyse and resuscitate her. But she had had a very good life. All her friends were dying, and she had had enough".

Mother and daughter were, on this issue, at one. But being much younger, McPherson remains "desperate to get things done". And she has set herself a new goal: living long enough to see the birth of her youngest daughter's first child, her sixth grandchild, expected in the summer.

She is in no hurry to die – quite the opposite. But she wants what she believes many in her position would want: the option to end her life in a manner and at a time of her own choosing. "There has not been a time when I wanted it – I may or may not want it – I just don't know. It's a choice issue. It's about having that option. Like having Viagra in the cupboard."

Her campaign began by accident. She wrote an article in the British Medical Journal in July 2009, two weeks after she discovered her cancer had returned, in which she castigated the medical establishment for its insularity on the issue. "Part of the problem is that those deciding on the legal and political issues concerning assisted dying are not those facing immediate death themselves," she wrote. "Why can't people have a rational discussion about assisted dying? Why can't it be available for those who want it as a choice?"

She was inundated with emails and letters in response, almost all in support, many from eminent names in the profession. "It made me think that given how many doctors were for a change in the law, we ought to form a group." It was launched in October and has generated a "very good" response.

She rejects the arguments of those who say that assisted dying undermines trust in the medical profession. "I have had three or four patients in my career as a GP who definitely wanted an assisted death despite having very good palliative care. They were not in pain – they had just had enough. I felt that not being able to help them affected my relationship with them. It is the other way round – not being able to assist undermines trust."

Some places, notably Oregon and Washington in the US, permit assisted dying, and demand in those states implies that about 1,000 people annually might make use of the legislation in the UK – one in 500 of all deaths. In Oregon, one in three of those cared for in hospices at the end of their lives had considered seeking an assisted death, suggesting that it brings comfort to far more people than actually use it.

McPherson acknowledges that people may be depressed, or feel a burden, or come under pressure from relatives. But these issues are not peculiar to dying – they apply in other areas such as abortion.

Like the Abortion Act, an Assisted Dying Act would be about giving people – in this case the terminally ill – the right to choose. And as with abortion "you would probably need two doctors to approve it".

She is sure it will come one day, as is her rapidly growing body of supporters.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs People

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: Have you been doing a brilliant job in an admi...

Surrey County Council: Senior Project Officer (Fixed Term to Feb 2019)

£26,498 - £31,556: Surrey County Council: We are looking for an outgoing, conf...

Recruitment Genius: Interim Head of HR

£50000 - £60000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you an innovative, senior H...

Recruitment Genius: Human Resources and Payroll Administrator

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Our client, a very well respect...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?