Hazel McHaffie

The Times poll

Assisted suicide – revisited

Serious week. Calls for a serious blog. Especially from the author of Right to Die.

Because assisted suicide hit the headlines again this week, big time, and some of my readers have contacted me about it. Prompting me to offer a couple of comments.

First the Royal College of Nursing officially withdrew its opposition to seriously ill patients seeking help to end their lives. It’s important to note that the RCN is not saying it approves the practice; full stop. Of the roughly 30% of their members who participated in their recent consultation exercise, 49% supported assisted dying; 40% opposed it. What the College is recognising is the variation in opinion amongst the health care professionals who work most closely with very sick patients, and the public mood.

The plan now is to issue guidance to help nursing staff to have a properly informed discussion with those who broach the subject with them. I just hope this process won’t take too long. What about all those patients and families who read the headlines; misread the signs; and confront unprepared nurses?

And there’s another issue which isn’t often raised. Nurses are certainly very close to terminally ill patients, but they aren’t the ones who actually do the deed or write the prescription. Important distinction.

The RCN news coincided with a poll in The Times – carried out a week after the conductor Sir Edward Downes and his wife died at the Dignitas clinic on July 10 – which found that 74% of people (well, Times readers anyway) want doctors to be allowed to help their patients in this way. If you’re one of the people who say assisted suicide should be legal, ask yourself: would you be willing to carry it out? Actually help someone to die, I mean. And if you wouldn’t, can you justify requiring others to do so?

Now today the Law Lords have issued a milestone ruling. Debbie Purdy, a lady with Multiple Sclerosis who has been campaigning for clarification of the law on assisted suicide has, they say, the right to know if her husband will be prosecuted if he helps her end her life. Guidance must be provided. The Director of Public Prosecutions has promised to issue an interim policy later this year. Ms Purdy herself says, this is not about a right to die but a right to live longer; if her husband is able to help her she will not be forced to end her life prematurely to protect him.

As I say, a serious week. Major challenges. Worrying questions. No easy answers.

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