Euthanasia used by 12% of doctors in poll: First comprehensive study finds almost half GPs and consultants asked to end a life. Ian MacKinnon reports

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The Independent Online
THE first comprehensive study into the scale of euthanasia in Britain, to be published tomorrow, indicates that more than 1 in 10 doctors have taken measures to end patients' lives at their request.

The survey of GPs and consultants, conducted in the aftermath of the case of Dr Nigel Cox, who was convicted of attempting to murder a patient given a lethal injection, also reveals that almost half had been asked to hasten the death of a patient.

Positive steps to shorten a patient's life is known to be widespread, being regarded as acceptable if it is a side-effect of the treatment, invariably pain relief. But the significance of the study is that it shows that, even where doctors could defend their actions on the grounds that they were merely trying to relieve pain, the intent had been to shorten the patient's life to end the suffering.

Yesterday, the Voluntary Euthanasia Society said the research confirmed the strong anecdotal evidence, and closely mirrored the results of similar studies in Australia and the United States.

However, the British Medical Association said it remained convinced that the law should not be changed as it would make euthanasia too readily available, with the danger that it would 'open the floodgates'.

Earlier this month the House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics, after protracted debate, ruled out any changes in the law that makes it illegal to intentionally take a life to relieve suffering, and leaves doctors facing mandatory life sentences for murder.

The latest study by Barney Ward, a medical student, and Dr Patricia Tate, being published in the British Medical Journal, was the result of a postal questionnaire sent to 424 doctors and completed by 312. Of those, 124 (45 per cent) had been asked to takes steps to shorten a patient's life, while another 76 (26 per cent) had faced requests to hasten death through the omission of some treatment - passive euthanasia.

A total of 38 (12 per cent of those who responded) had taken steps to shorten a patient's life.

Nearly half of respondents (47 per cent) would like to see a similar system to that in the Netherlands. There, euthanasia is technically illegal but doctors can avoid prosecution if they show the patient's request was well-considered and that there was no alternative. Equally, 46 per cent of doctors would consider practising euthanasia if it were legal.

The authors argue that the legal situation in regard to patients is unsatisfactory since the illegality of the practice makes it 'taboo' and clouds their relationship with their doctor. For doctors, too, the situation is inevitably difficult. 'The fact that active euthanasia is illegal may deprive doctors of access to sources of adequate and effective advice and support, both professional and personal,' it says.

John Oliver, general secretary of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, said yesterday that the House of Lords' decision barred the likelihood of any change in the law for the foreseeable future.

One geriatrician, who did not wish to be named, echoed the call for a law change: 'There is enormous misery among those being kept alive for no apparent reason.'