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Dying GP urges new law on assisted suicide

By Lilian Anekwe

Exclusive: A best-selling GP author who is dying from cancer has made an impassioned plea for a rethink on assisted suicide.

Dr Ann McPherson is the GP behind the million-selling book Diary of a Teenage Health Freak and the DIPEx patient support charity. She is also terminally ill with advanced pancreatic cancer, and believes people suffering as she is must be given the option of an assisted death.

In an exclusive interview with Pulse, Dr McPherson criticised the RCGP and the BMA for remaining staunchly opposed to any change in the law to allow a GP to assist a patient's death.

She claimed many GPs disagreed with their vehement opposition, insisting large numbers would be prepared to help a patient die, and that some had already done so.

Dr McPherson has worked as a GP for 30 years, and was shortlisted for a lifetime achievement award by the BMJ earlier this year for her medical work, her writing and for the charity DIPEx, which gathers patient testimonials on its website www.healthtalkonline.org.

She is aiming to make her final achievement to change the views of the medical profession on assisted dying and drive the debate on a change in the law – even though she knows she won't see the conclusion.

Dr McPherson said articles she had written calling for a change in the law in the BMJ and The Lancet had sparked a fierce debate in the profession, and attracted overwhelming support from colleagues: ‘I've had over 100 emails and letters from doctors and lots have said "I absolutely agree with you". The BMA and RCGP don't represent the views of the whole profession. I'm sure many GPs have been in a position where patients have asked them to help them die. When you ask GPs, they will have increased morphine or sedation and helped people to die, in a sense.'

Dr McPherson has not decided yet whether she wants an assisted death, but admitted the issue had ‘been brought into much sharper focus'. ‘I've always felt people should have the right to an assisted death, but being terminally ill makes it much more real. I have had good palliative care, but however good it is, I would like the option of an assisted death.'

She claimed the position held by the BMA and RCGP was far from evidence-based: ‘There are different views but at the moment one view prevails and that seems to me wrong. There should be a proper debate.'

Baroness Finlay, professor of palliative care medicine at Cardiff University and chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Dying Well, has criticised Dr McPherson's outspoken stance, insisting better palliative care will ‘weaken the case' for assisted dying.

But Dr McPherson said: ‘Baroness Finlay said "suicide is always tragic". But an assisted death is not tragic because having your family around you, understanding what you want and why, and choosing your death in the way you want, is not tragic. It's very positive.'

Dr Ann McPherson Dr Ann McPherson Assisted dying - where are we now?

It is illegal for a doctor to hasten or assist in hastening a patient's death.

In July this year, former Lord Chancellor Lord Falconer petitioned to remove threat of prosecution to those who travel - or help others to travel - to countries where assisted dying is legal, but lost the Lord's vote.

In September, the Director of Public Prosecutions issued guidance outlining 13 circumstances under which someone who assisted a death may not be prosecuted - including if the victim asked for assistance in killing themselves.

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