Opposition to legalization of assisted suicide is growing among British doctors, particularly from those who work in palliative care for terminally ill patients.
A statement from the Association for Palliative Medicine to the committee examining the Falconer bill to legalize assisted suicide cited the commonly expressed British fear that terminally ill patients would feel they had “become a burden” to loved ones. They criticized the bill for having “no safeguards” to protect the emotionally and physically vulnerable dying.
“We care for dying people day in and day out and we fear that many of them could come to harm if this bill were to be enacted,” the statement said. “There are some who fit the stereotype of the no-nonsense and strong-willed patient who is resolved to end his or her life.”
“But there are many more who are not like this. Some are struggling to come to terms with their mortality, others suffer depression and changes of mood or feel guilt at the burden their illness may be placing on others.”
Others, they said, “do not have access to a level of social care to enable them to feel their lives are worth living.” The bill, they said, “kicks into the long grass the crucial question of how the process is to be regulated and how abuse is to be prevented.”
The Royal College of Surgeons said in their one-page submission to the House of Lords committee that they believe the law “as it currently stands should not be changed and no system should be introduced to allow people to be assisted to die. We do not recognise any circumstances under which it should be possible for people to be assisted to die.”
“There is a danger that a ‘right to die’ may become a ‘responsibility to die’ making already vulnerable people even more vulnerable.”
The submission warned that such legislation would “fundamentally alter” the relationship between doctor and patient, and that if physicians are “also involved in the taking of life this creates a conflict that is potentially very damaging.” The truly “compassionate” response to patients “with ‘difficult to manage’ symptoms” must “involve empathy and working hard to control symptoms and not simply to hasten death.”
“It is unusual to encounter a patient whose symptoms are truly unmanageable and greater availability of palliative care expertise would help this further,” the college continued.
Two days before the debate in the House of Lords, the Royal College of Physicians issued a statement confirming the UKMedix findings, saying that out of 5,111 responses, “73.2% of RCP fellows and collegiate members did not believe a change in the law was needed, with 26% believing the law should change. This policy was reaffirmed by the Royal College of Physicians’ Council in 2012.”
Forty-three of the respondents to the RCP poll (0.8 per cent) declined to answer, but their comments were overwhelmingly opposed, including 95.4 percent of palliative care specialists. “No specialty group submitting more than 50 returns fell below 65% in opposing a change in the law,” the RCP noted.
A survey taken by UKMedix at the end of August found enormous growth in opposition to the proposal to legalize assisted suicide. Only 19 percent of physicians said they would participate themselves in ending a patient’s life and 58 percent outright opposed a change in law.
This contrasts sharply with the claim in a parliamentary document dated 2005 that quoted a poll by the same UKMedix that said, “When asked to choose between criminal prohibition and legislation to permit medically assisted dying, 56 per cent of doctors chose legislation.”
Dr. Tony Calland, chairman of the British Medical Association’s ethics committee, was quoted by the Christian Institute responded to the poll. “Many doctors have first-hand experience of caring for dying patients and believe that rather than deliberately ending a patient’s life, we should instead be focusing on building the very best of palliative care for those in distress”.
“Doctors have repeatedly expressed their opposition to assisted dying when it has been debated regularly at the BMA’s annual conference that sets our policy, which since 2006 has been to oppose assisted dying in all its forms,” he added.
The Voluntary Euthanasia Society presented a 2005 document from the Select Committee on Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill to the committee as evidence. It noted that a survey taken in 2003 by Nursing Times “found that two out of three nurses supported a change in the law.”
But the Christian Institute notes the growth of the opposition over the last decade, saying that the Falconer bill is now being opposed by all the major British medical organizations.
With the parliamentary process starting up again after the summer recess, the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children has asked that concerned UK citizens continue to lobby their politicians to stop the bill. They have provided an email address for those who wish to contact peers of the House of Lords.