Euthanasia Society faces split after chairman's arrest

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The Independent Online

The Voluntary Euthanasia Society is meeting tomorrow to discuss the future of its former chairman, who stepped down at the weekend after admitting he had planned to help a dying man kill himself.

Campaigners in the society could face a split over Dr Michael Irwin, who has been arrested by police investigating the death ofPatrick Kneen, who had cancer. Some members of the 15,000-strong society believe Dr Irwin - who wants to remain on the society's board - has overstepped the mark, while others support his radical stand on euthanasia.

Police are now considering whether to charge Dr Irwin, 72, with conspiring to assist a suicide. If prosecuted, he would be the first doctor to face such a charge and, if found guilty, could face up to 14 years in jail. The case could test the current law on doctor-assisted suicide and split the organisation over how it campaigns on the issue.

Mr Kneen, 74, died at his home on the Isle of Man on 23 October after a long battle against prostate cancer. Dr Irwin has admitted that he obtained powerful painkillers and travelled from his Surrey home to visit Mr Kneen with the intention of helping him to commit suicide. The men had met three years ago through the VES. Mr Kneen, a retired organic farmer, had launched a campaign to make euthanasia legal on the Isle of Man.

But Dr Irwin maintains that, by the time he arrived, Mr Kneen was too ill and frail to hold or swallow the pills and that he died naturally a few days later. Dr Irwin stayed with Mr Kneen until he died. He said: "For a few days I did conspire to bring about Mr Kneen's suicide because that is what he wanted. But I eventually played no role in his death.

"He was way past the stage of assisted suicide. I said [to Mr Kneen's family], 'I am sorry about all this. In no way can we have a physician-assisted suicide for Patrick'."

Dr Irwin was arrested after Mr Kneen's wife, Patricia, also a euthanasia campaigner, wrote to her local paper about her husband's death and explained how a doctor friend from Surrey had come prepared to help with a physician-assisted suicide. She was also arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to aid and abet her husband's suicide.

Mrs Kneen said: "The police are treating me like a murderer. My husband and I did discuss the option of voluntary euthanasia and decided that if we could help each other to die, we would. But I did not help him in the end."

The Isle of Man police are now considering whether to exhume Mr Kneen's body to perform a post-mortem examination.

Dr Irwin has been released on police bail and must return to the Isle of Man on 13 February. He has been a long-time campaigner for voluntary euthanasia and, in the past, has admitted to helping several of his terminally ill patients to die by administering fatal drug overdoses to ease their suffering. The GP is also serving a two-year tenure as International President of World Federation of Right To Die Societies. He wants to stay on the 14-strong VES board, which will hold an emergency meeting tomorrow to discuss the case.

The society, which insists members should only act within current law, has started an internal investigation into its chairman's actions. Deborah Annetts, the VES chief executive, said: "We are taking this news extremely seriously and have launched an internal investigation into the matter. The society's constitution states that we campaign within the law for greater patient choice at the end of life. Everyone who works for VES or acts on our behalf is made aware of their obligation to campaign within the law at all times."

Dr Irwin might try to trigger a poll of the society's members in order to keep his position on the board and make the VES more radical in its approach to euthanasia.