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Independents' Day

When will we start to afford humans the same dignity as our pets?

Dr David Turner

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On 7 February, Geoff Whaley, who had been suffering from motor neurone disease, died peacefully in the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland.

Another patient suffering from an appalling disease had to spend part of the last of his precious time on earth flying to Switzerland to receive the dignified end to his life he wanted.

Cases like this one are sadly not uncommon. On average, every eight days a Briton travels to Dignitas for help to die. Many patients with terminal and irreversible diseases have taken their case to the High Court, in an attempt to get the law changed to allow assisted dying in the UK.

What was particularly sad in Geoff Whaley’s case was not just that in this supposedly civilised and medically advanced country, he could not legally receive the medical assistance he needed to choose the time and manner of his own death, but that also his wife was investigated by the police for assisting his suicide. She apparently helped him book the flights to Switzerland, as he had lost the use of his hands.

As doctors, our own views, whether based on religion or culture, are irrelevant


The issue of assisted dying naturally divides the medical profession and brings out those with strong views on both sides of the argument. Standing back from these divided lines, I would say we should, as doctors, act purely in our patients’ best interests, full stop. Our own views, whether based on religion or culture, are irrelevant - our job is to do what is best for the patient in front of us. This principle applies to anything in medicine, from abortion to treating drug dependency - our personal opinions need to be left at home.

The politicians are not going to stand up and be counted on this one. We as the medical profession need to take the lead. I would urge doctors to register their support with Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying.

Think back to the 17-year-old you, when asked at your medical school interview why you wanted to do medicine. Your answer would have been, more or less, ‘to help people’.

Dr David Turner is a GP in North West London

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Readers' comments (1)

  • The 1961 Suicide Act is unique in making it a criminal offence to assist someone in doing something that is not itself a crime!
    GPs in Scotland need not be legally concerned as the 1961 Suicide Act does not apply in Scotland where suicide was never a criminal offence. Assisting in a suicide to the extent that it could be regarded as culpable homicide or even murder would obviously be a very different matter.
    Providing a report that might be given to Dignitas is clearly neither. There was even a case about 15 years ago where a GP in the south of Glasgow prescribed drugs at the request of a terminally ill patient so that she could take her own life, which she did. As a matter of principle he was very open about it, the GMC became agitated and wanted to strike him off on the basis of criminal activity, but no crime had been committed. From memory, he was about to retire and did so shortly afterwards. The GMC would otherwise have no doubt 'got' him on something.
    Fortunately it seems that no further action was taken after the police investigation of Geoff Whaley's wife, though it must have been very distressing. No idea what the legal position would have been for her or others with a similar dilemma, if she had driven with him to Scotland, ostensibly for a final holiday, then booked the tickets and flown to Switzerland from there. A nonsense that anyone should have to consider doing so.
    Even if the law were never to change, the inappropriately overenthusiastic desire by some to apply it needs to be formally stopped, not just the issuing of advice or guidance to prosecutors. One wonders if those who drafted to 1961 Act ever intended "assisting, aiding or abetting suicide" to be so broadly interpreted that it now includes booking an airline ticket. I strongly suspect not. Perhaps more precisely and narrowly defining this might be an acceptable initial compromise if the law were not to change, though change it must. Those opposed to assisted dying just need to see a friend or relative dying from MND and almost all would change their view.

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