In an editorial published earlier this month The Times took stock of the parliamentary and public debate on whether physician-assisted suicide should be legalised. It was a balanced and thoughtful article, and it concluded that Lord Falconer's Private Member's Bill, which ran out of time in the last session of Parliament, should not be revived.
The Times put its finger on two key issues in the debate - the need for effective safeguards for such legislation; and the opposition of doctors to legalisation. The editorial comments that:
"Doctors know, better than most, the psychological pressures on the frail and vulnerable who may think themselves a burden. They can also see how a new law could be extended to include the incapacitated or those unable to give consent"
These warnings, which have been made many times but not heeded, are salutary. We have seen laws like this extended in Holland and Belgium, and now we are seeing the first attempts to stretch Oregon's physician-assisted suicide law.
A question which is now being asked in this debate is: why does assisted suicide have to be physician-assisted suicide? The majority of doctors, including a very substantial majority of those who specialise in care of the dying, do not support a change in the law. The Medical Colleges and the BMA take the same view. In a recent survey of medical opinion less than one in five doctors said they would be prepared to have anything to do with legalised 'assisted dying'. Yet the succession of Private Member bills we have seen in recent years, in Scotland as well as in England and Wales, insist on placing assisted suicide within clinical practice?
This is becoming a matter of increasing concern within the medical community. The point was well expressed in a letter to The Times signed by 18 doctors:
"Why are those who want to change the law so insistent that assisted suicide should be embedded in clinical practice? Perhaps it is thought that placing such practices within healthcare will help to commend them to a sceptical parliament and public. We do not believe any convincing case has been made for changing the law. But we are clear that, if assistance with suicide were ever to be legalised, it should be kept well clear of healthcare".