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Top doctors hit back against assisted suicide calls

13 July 2018

Experts in palliative care and ethics hit back at assisted suicide calls.

It's very telling that the people who would have to carry out assisted suicide oppose it

The former president of the Royal College of Surgeons, a clinical ethicist and an associate professor in intellectual disability and palliative care have all written into the Times in response to calls in the paper to legalise assisted suicide. 

Palliative care expert Irene Tuffrey-Wijne took issue with an article in the newspaper’s magazine by neurosurgeon Henry Marsh, whereas Dr Lucy Pollock, FRCP Chairwoman, clinical ethics committee, Taunton and Somerset Hospital, and Lord Ribeiro Former president, Royal College of Surgeons, responded to columnist Alice Thompson. 

It does put vulnerable people at risk

Dr Tuffrey-Wijne disagreed with Dr Marsh's assertion that there is no evidence that vulnerable people are put at risk in places where assisted suicide is legal.

"With my Dutch and British colleagues, I have studied the way the legal safeguards are applied by doctors in Holland when the person requesting assisted dying has intellectual disabilities or an autism spectrum disorder," she writes. "The evidence is very worrying."

One of the nine cases they reviewed involved "a woman with intellectual disabilities who could not cope with her symptoms of tinnitus but was unable to see alternatives because of 'her primitive thinking abilities'. She was helped to die on request. This was just one of the cases that raised concerns about the way in which the requirement of a 'voluntary and well-considered request' is interpreted."

Dr Tuffrey-Wijne added that the Dutch evidence shows how difficult suffering is to assess, "and how this does in fact put vulnerable people at risk".

Focus on euthanasia distracting from proper care

Dr Pollock, meanwhile, challenged Alice Thompson's conflation between the right to refuse burdensome treatment and active assisted suicide or euthanasia. No one has to die "covered in tubes . . . and medicated in order to postpone death," she says. 

"All older people have the right to treatment, including valiant life-prolonging efforts when these are desired and stand a chance of success," Dr Pollock writes. "The conflation of economics and ethics in Thomson’s article is chilling. The focus on assisted death is distracting us from a more pressing problem: we haven’t yet talked openly and comprehensively about how and when to allow those who want it a peaceful and unassisted death."

Majority of doctors opposed

Finally, Lord Ribeiro pointed out that while "Alice Thomson says that she wants control over where and when she proposing legalisation of assisted suicide she is making it someone else’s — a doctor’s — responsibility."

He also said that opinion polls which indicate public support for legalisation are "often sponsored by campaigning groups with a vested interest in the outcome, and are worded in such a way to invite the desired answers". 

Moreover, he said, "significantly, polls of doctors, who would have to implement any such regime, show just the opposite: that the majority don’t want it."

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