A clear decision from the consulting room.

GPs make their position clear on physician-assisted suicide

The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) has announced that it is to maintain its stance of opposition to legalisation of assisted suicide following a consultation with its members. This outcome is not surprising.  Doctors in general, and GPs in particular, would find themselves in the front line of any ‘assisted dying’ law.  It is they who would have to make near-impossible judgements about whether a request for lethal drugs represented a settled and completely voluntary wish by a patient to end his or her life, about the extent to which depression (a frequent concomitant of serious illness) might be clouding the patient’s thinking and about whether there might be any untoward family dynamics in the background that might be influencing the request.   The responses to the consultation, as revealed in the College’s announcement of its decision, indicate an awareness among GPs of the vulnerability of seriously-ill patients.  Among the reasons given by those who wished to see the College’s position maintained were concerns that the introduction of physician-assisted suicide would be detrimental to the doctor-patient relationship, that the most vulnerable groups in society could be put at risk and that it would be impossible to be sure that every request for ‘assisted dying’ was entirely voluntary. The College’s re-endorsement of its policy in this difficult area is to be welcomed. Whatever arguments may be advanced for changing the law to license assisted suicide, there is a serious question mark over whether such practices can be regarded as constituting a proper part of clinical care.  As the Royal College of Physicians stated in a letter to the Director of Public Prosecutions in 2009, a doctor’s duty of care for patients “does not include being in any way part of their suicide”.