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Physician Assisted Suicide would “fundamentally change” doctor-patient relationship: poll

14 February 2019

How would legalising assisted suicide change the relationship between doctors and patients?

"This poll puts a sword to the lie that changing the law on assisted suicide enjoys unremitting support."

Introducing physician-assisted suicide would fundamentally change the doctor-patient relationship, a major new poll for Care Not Killing has found.

A survey of over 2,000 members of the public found high levels of concern about vulnerable people feeling pressure to end their lives, with four in 10 saying changing the law risks normalising suicide.

GPs have a duty to protect lives

The ComRes poll, commissioned in the wake of the Royal College of Physicians' plan to drop its opposition to "assisted dying" through a much criticised consultation, asked GB adults about their views on assisted suicide, the model used in Oregon, and how this would affect trust in doctors.

When asked, "If GPs are given the power to help patients commit suicide it will fundamentally change the relationship between a doctor and patient, since GPs are currently under a duty to protect and preserve lives," more than twice as many said it would (48 per cent to 23 per cent), while nearly 3 in ten (29 per cent) were not sure.

Putting the vulnerable at risk

The poll also found that most (51 per cent) of those surveyed were concerned that some people might feel pressured into accepting help to take their own life "so as not to be a burden on others", while half that proportion (25 per cent) disagreed.

Asked if cases such as Dr Harold Shipman and the Gosport Hospital scandal made people more concerned that changing the law to allow doctors to prescribe lethal doses of a substance to kill terminally ill patients would fundamentally change the relationship between doctors and patients, more than four in 10 (42 per cent) agreed, 28 per cent disagreed and three in 10 (30 per cent) did not know.

Can GPs be trusted?

The poll also found high levels of concern about whether overstretched doctors have the time or clinical ability to accurately assess a patient’s mental capacity if they requested help to end their life.  More than a quarter of adults (27 per cent), equivalent to 13.5 million patients, said that if assisted suicide were legal, "they would not trust their own GP enough for them to make a decision about their mental capacity to decide whether or not to accept help to take their own life."

Dr Gordon MacDonald, a spokesman for Care Not Killing, said: "It is clear that ripping up the longstanding agreement between doctors and society that their job is to save life not to end it would have a seriously damaging effect on how the profession is viewed. In places like Oregon and Washington there have been reports of the sick being denied the life-saving and life-extending drugs they need but offered the poison to end their life. While in Belgium one study found more than 1,000 assisted deaths were without the explicit request of the patient."

Society should work to prevent suicides, not promote them

Despite persistent claims from campaigners that a large majority of the population supports assisted suicide, respondents were evenly split (with 37% both agreeing and disagreeing) on whether legalising assisted dying risks normalising suicide and leading to an increase in deaths among the general population. 78% agreed that "as a society we ought to try to do everything we reasonably can to reduce the rate of suicides, especially among men who are three times as likely as women to take their own lives".

Dr MacDonald concluded: "This poll puts a sword to the lie that changing the law on assisted suicide enjoys unremitting support. Abandoning universal protections and expecting doctors to dispense lethal drugs with the express purpose of killing their patients causes alarm. It would undermine the doctor-patient relationship and, as large numbers of the public recognise, risks normalising suicide."

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