Assisted suicide campaigners bid to change law

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The Independent Online

Doctors and nurses who support assisted suicide for the terminally ill will launch a campaign tomorrow to change the law on the right to die.

Healthcare Professionals for Change (HPC), a group of doctors, nurses and allied health professionals, aims to challenge the views of bodies such as the British Medical Association (BMA) and the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) which oppose such a move.

It is the first professional body to be set up with the explicit aim of changing the 1961 Suicide Act.

Dr Ann McPherson, who is dying of pancreatic cancer, said many doctors believed that patients "should not have to suffer against their wishes at the end of life".

The group's founder went on: "By taking a hostile approach to a change in the law on assisted dying, medical bodies such as the BMA and the Royal College of Physicians are failing to adequately reflect the views of all their members.

"Alongside access to good-quality end-of-life care, we believe that terminally-ill, mentally-competent patients should be able to choose an assisted death, subject to safeguards."

Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying which backs the group, said: "It's a real move forward.

"It's important for doctors to be able to challenge the views of the BMA and other medical bodies. They need to be able to represent a wider viewpoint."

The Royal College of Nursing (RCN) moved from opposing assisted suicide to a neutral position last summer, and the HPC aims to encourage other Royal Colleges and the BMA to follow suit.

But Dr Vivienne Nathanson, the BMA's head of sciences and ethics, said: "Assisted dying is illegal in the UK so doctors are not permitted to help terminally-ill competent adults to die."

It was a "complex and emotive issue", she said, but a motion to support assisted suicide has never been passed by BMA members at their annual meetings.

RCP president Sir Richard Thompson said that, for a minority of patients, "the prospect of a diminishing quality of life increasingly bereft of autonomy is deeply frightening".

"Society should debate how to address their concerns," he said, but RCP members voted in 2008 not to support a change in the law.

"Their concerns came from a belief that many of its advocates do not recognise adequately the clinical realities of managing serious illness and disability.

"And, while uncomfortable to discuss, we also need to consider how the complex dynamics of patient-family relationships may bear upon the choices a patient makes.

"We believe that, for the moment, the dilemmas raised by this issue are best addressed by improved access to high-quality palliative care and better advanced planning."

A spokesman for the Care Not Killing alliance, which also opposes assisted suicide, said: "It is important to realise that there is not a single Royal College or significant medical organisation in this country that backs the legalisation of assisted suicide or euthanasia.

"This group represents a tiny minority of medical professionals who are unhappy with the status quo and certainly not mainstream conventional medical beliefs."

But last month, Chris Broad, the former England cricketer, criticised the law which meant that his 60-year-old wife Michelle, who killed herself over her advancing Motor Neurone Disease, had to die alone.

He told Channel 4 News: "If there is a no-hope situation and they are of a sound mind and are willing to make this decision, then I think they should be allowed to with their loved ones around them."

The chief prosecutor in England and Wales issued new guidelines over assisted suicide in February after right-to-die campaigner Debbie Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis, took her case to the highest court in the country after the High Court and Court of Appeal held that it was for Parliament, not the courts, to change the law.

Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, said the motives of those assisting suicide would be at the centre of the decision over whether they should be prosecuted.

Anyone acting with compassion to help end the life of someone who has decided they cannot go on is unlikely to face criminal charges, but each case will be judged on its merits and anyone who carries out a "mercy killing" would lay themselves open to murder or manslaughter charges, he said.

Assisted suicide remains a criminal offence in England and Wales, punishable by up to 14 years in prison, but individual decisions on prosecution will be made on the circumstances in each case, Mr Starmer said.

Ms Purdy, from Undercliffe, in Bradford, West Yorkshire, wanted to know what would happen to her Cuban husband, Omar Puente, if he helped her travel abroad to end her life.