Death and the courts of law

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Until yesterday there was only one country in the world where a doctor could help a patient to die and not face prosecution as a result.

In 1993 the Netherlands legalised the reporting procedure for voluntary euthanasia. This meant that doctors, by law, had to report any deaths they aided, but in doing so, they were, to all intents and purposes, guaranteed immunity.

Elsewhere, medical and legal establishment views have held sway against decriminalisation of doctor-assisted suicide, despite surveys that suggest massive support among the public.

In the UK, an NOP poll in 1993 put support at 79 per cent. A survey of doctors published earlier this year found that more than half supported rational suicide, and more than a quarter had been asked for help to die by desperate patients. Another survey, published in the British Medical Journal in 1994, found that 10 per cent of doctors admitted to having helped someone to die.

In the United States, doctor-assisted suicide has been hotly debated, fuelled by Dr Jack Kevorkian, a retired pathologist who has helped 28 people to die since 1990.

Earlier this year, two federal courts of appeal, on the west coast and in New York, ruled that doctor-assisted suicide was a constitutional right, and more states are expected to follow.