Senior Doctors Reject Euthanasia Bill

03 May 2006

Plans to legalise assisted suicide have been rejected by two influential groups of senior doctors.

Nearly three in four of the consultant surgeons who deal with disfiguring, painful and potentially fatal facial cancers are opposed to the Bill to be debated in the House of Lords on May 12.

The consultants point to the abuses of euthanasia in Holland, where it is legal, and warned that changing the law would open a “Pandora's box” of practical and ethical difficulties.

One surgeon said that he feared that giving doctors the right to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill patients would be a green light for more Harold Shipmans – a reference to the Manchester GP held responsible for murdering hundreds of his elderly patients and given 15 life sentences.

The survey of 128 members of the British Association of Oral and Maxillofacial Surgeons (BAOMS) coincided with a detailed statement by the Royal College of Psychiatrists (RCPsych) expressing deep concern about any change in the law.

Mounting opposition to Lord Joffe's Bill is highlighted today by the Care Not Killing Alliance, which represents 30 charities and healthcare bodies opposed to the Bill, and which launched its parliamentary campaign last week with a warning that “assisted dying” was a slippery slope to full-blown euthanasia.

Dr Peter Saunders, CNK campaign director, said: “Expert medical opinion is strongly against this Bill. Doctors rightly fear that terminally ill patients will either be bullied into requesting an end to their lives or will seek suicide while their judgement is impaired by their illness. The answer to their despair is not physician-assisted suicide (PAS) but properly funded palliative care, in which Britain is a world leader.”

The RCPsych say they are “deeply worried” by the Bill. They warn that if it became law pressures would grow for PAS to be extended to groups other than the terminally ill.

They also point out that many seriously ill patients suffer from depression and harbour suicidal thoughts.

The RCPsych says: “Requests for PAS should trigger effective treatment of depression and its causes - not actual PAS.

“If PAS were to be allowed under this Bill, we anticipate the possibility of progression to include other circumstances. For example: Why limit PAS just to the dying? Why limit to those with life threatening illness? Why limit to people with mental capacity?

“If one is trying to prevent suffering, why not allow it to be used for people with a range of psychiatric disorders, as now happens in the Netherlands and in Belgium?.

“We are very concerned that if this legislation were enacted it would become impossible to limit it to people with a limited life expectancy. If assisted suicide exists for physical illness, individuals with psychiatric disorders could argue with some justification that they will be discriminated against if it does not exist for them.”

According to the BAOMS survey, many surgeons felt that assisted dying was no substitute for palliative care services, which, they believe, should be funded more comprehensively. They were worried that cost considerations would pressurise vulnerable patients into requesting PAS.

Background

The BAOMS Survey was carried out in Feb 2006 by letter. The findings are based on a representative sample of 197 UK consultants oral and maxillofacial surgeons. Of the 197 contacted, 128 responded, a response rate of 65%. Of those who responded, 92 (72%) were opposed to Lord Joffe's Bill, 31 (24%) were in favour and 5 (4%) expressed no definite views either way.