Uncertainty on unregulated euthanasia must end
As Dr Ann McPherson's case illustrates, there is clearly a desire - whether we like it or not - among some patients at the end of often terrible battles with debilitating, incurable diseases to end their suffering, with the support of their relatives ('Dying GP calls for new law on assisted suicide').
To deny this right is to prolong the suffering of individuals and families - something I cannot condone.
But assisted dying is not like any other clinical decision and if society is to offer this solemn choice it must build in safeguards that not only rectify the inadequacies of the current situation, but protect the vulnerable, the weak and all those - doctors and nurses included - who are involved in this incredibly difficult situation.
We must enact legislation to decriminalise acts of euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide, for the following compelling reasons:
- Prevention of cruelty and protection of human rights. To allow a terminally ill individual to end their life is the only humane, rational and compassionate choice. The current prohibitions require a person with great physical or mental suffering to continue to endure suffering against their wishes, which cannot be right. The rights to life and to private and family life under the European convention on human rights should be interpreted broadly to include decisions about quality of life, including decisions about death if life is no longer one of quality.
- Regulatory control. The terminally ill are travelling abroad to countries where the right to end life in terminal cases is lawful. We cannot regulate the laws of foreign lands. We must make provisions within our laws to regulate this issue within our boundaries. We must not prosecute loved ones who assist a terminally ill individual to travel abroad to end their life lawfully for 'encouraging or assisting' suicide.
- Ambiguity. The current law conflicts with the law as it is being enforced. If the laws were enforced, more than 100 people would have been prosecuted for accompanying loved ones abroad to end their lives. This uncertainty leaves all concerned, including physicians, unprotected.
- Discrimination. The ability of the wealthy to travel to countries where it is lawful for the terminally ill to end their lives treats the haves and have-nots unequally.
- Available safeguards. Many people are opposed to legislation that would allow 'end of life' choices. But our concerns relating to abuses and protection of the vulnerable can be addressed by ensuring certain objective conditions are met prior to allowing a terminally ill individual to exercise the right to die:
- the patient must be terminally ill
- the patient must be an adult
- the patient must be mentally competent
- the patient must be in severe pain
- two independent physicians must be satisfied that the above conditions are present.
If we do not address this issue head on, we will have continued uncertainty and the unregulated practice of euthanasia, with the fear of prosecution hanging over the heads of all concerned. The goal of the medical profession should still be to save lives - but not at the expense of compassion and the right of the terminally ill to choose to end their lives with dignity.
From Dr Kailash Chand, Ashton-under-LyneDr Kailash Chand