Medical regulators are considering how to deal with allegations that doctors have helped people kill themselves after a patient asked them what support, if any, doctors could give to people considering ending their own lives.
The General Medical Council (GMC) says doctors are already bound by the law that assisting or encouraging suicide remains a criminal offence but believes it needs to clarify how its own investigators deal with cases where no prosecution is mounted but complaints are still made about a doctor’s fitness to practise.
More than 150 Britons have travelled to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich, Switzerland, to end their own lives. A GMC working group is drafting internal guidance for decision-makers on fitness to practise cases before putting it out for public consultation late next month.
Niall Dickson, the GMC’s chief executive, said: « The issue of assisted suicide is complex and sensitive. We already have clear guidance for doctors that they must always act within the law and assisting or encouraging suicide remains a criminal offence. This guidance will not in any way change the legal position for doctors. It is not our role to take a position on whether or not the law should be changed; that is a matter for the relevant legislature.
« We recognise however that there are a range of actions which could be considered as assisting in a suicide, such as providing information to a patient about suicide or providing practical assistance for someone to travel to a clinic such as Dignitas. Some of these actions may not lead to criminal charges but may still lead to complaints to us about a doctor’s fitness to practise.
« We therefore think our decision-makers will find it useful to have guidance about the factors they should consider when dealing with an allegation that a doctor has assisted a person to commit suicide. Doctors, patients and others may also find it helpful if we set out clearly how we will consider complaints in this area. »
The GMC says it has only considered three cases involving allegations relating to doctors assisting in a death in the past 10 years. One resulted from a conviction for assisting suicide in Canada and none from any conviction in the UK.
There have been no prosecutions of anyone alleged to have assisted suicide in England and Wales since the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, issued a new policy framework for prosecutors in February 2010. This came after Debbie Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis, convinced English law lords in 2009 that it was a breach of her human rights not to know whether her husband would be prosecuted if he accompanied her to the Dignitas clinic.
But the legal position is being challenged again by a 46-year-old man who is almost paralysed. His lawyers suggest that, if successful, his action could lead to people seeking the help of doctors to ease their deaths in this country or enrolling health professionals to help them travel abroad.
Starmer insisted the 2010 framework did not change the law, nor open the door for euthanasia, but focused on the motivation of the person suspected of assisting suicide.
Six public interest factors against prosecution include whether the person who has died had reached a « voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision » and whether the suspect acted out of compassion and « reported the victim’s suicide to the police and fully assisted them in their inquiries into the circumstances of the suicide or the attempt and his or her part in providing encouragement or assistance ».
In Scotland there is no offence of assisting suicide but in some circumstances the law of homicide may apply. Prosecutors have made clear it is up to the Holyrood parliament to decide whether the law needs changing.
Source : http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2011/dec/15/assisted-suicide-new-advice