The brain surgeon whose bestselling memoir moved the Prime Minister to tears and whose eviscerations of NHS management and target culture have been as sharp as his surgical tools has added his voice to calls for the UK to allow terminally ill people end their lives voluntarily.
Henry Marsh, one of the country’s most senior neurosurgeons, is the author of Do No Harm, published last year, lauded by David Cameron who read it over Christmas, and now shortlisted for the prestigious Wellcome Book Prize for medical writing.
Speaking to The Independent on Sunday before the awards later this week, Mr Marsh said he was a “deep” believer in euthanasia and urged the UK to follow the example of countries such as Holland, Belgium and Switzerland, and legalise assisted dying.
He thinks older people should prepare advanced directives – also known as advance decisions – giving doctors legal permission not to give certain life-extending treatments in the event of the patient’s ability to consent being compromised.
“I’ve said in mine, if I have any illness that will kill me where treatment has not got at least a 95 per cent chance of my returning to a totally independent life, I don’t want to live,” he said.
“I believe deeply in euthanasia. The problem with it is that it is only possible in people who are fully compos mentis. You clearly can’t carry out euthanasia on people who are demented.
“From a purely practical point of view I think everybody as they get older as I have done, should have advanced directives.”
He added that proposals set out in Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill, which if passed, would let terminally ill people with less than six months to live control the time and manner of their death, amounted to “euthanasia-lite”.
“In Holland, Belgium and Switzerland, it’s [based on] intolerable suffering – you don’t have to be expecting to be dead in six months. Have Holland, Belgium and Switzerland fallen apart, has society collapsed as a result of this ‘evil’? No.” he said.
His book, which alongside accounts of lifesaving brain surgery, also recalls cases of patients left disabled by their operations, questions what makes a “good death”. “Absence of pain” is one of the few things most people agree on. “But it’s hard to think in those terms,” he said. “It’s human nature... wanting to go on living for ever. It’s very hard to let go and very hard to say no.”
Mr Marsh, who earlier this month retired from most of his NHS work at St George’s hospital in south London, said he had been struck by the disingenuousness of the political debate around the NHS before the election, warning that the parties were not talking about cuts that are expected in the next Parliament.
“They’re not talking about the £22bn, which are cuts, of course. They call them efficiency savings – but if it was easy, why haven’t we done it before?
“Maybe things can be done better, but what bothers me is that the marketisation and ‘financialisation’ of the NHS has eroded the sense of public duty and public spirit.”
Mr Marsh added that politicians should be prepared to “think radically” about how to find more money for the NHS, and should consider a hypothecated tax for the health service.
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