NHS chiefs back calls to reform assisted suicide law
One of England’s largest health authorities has said it is not opposed to assisted suicide and called for a change in the law to give patients more “choice” over how they die.
The current law, under which helping someone commit suicide is illegal, is not fit for the 21st century, according to the West Midlands NHS Strategic Health Authority.
Pauline Smith, the end of life care lead for the region, said it was “not good enough” that only those who could afford to travel to Dignitas suicide clinics in Switzerland were able to control their own deaths.
Her comments will be seen as a boost for the right to die campaign, as West Midlands has become the first health authority to back calls for a change in the law to date.
It comes as the government’s clinical director for cancer services warned that many hospitals were failing to provide adequate care to the terminally ill because doctors were not “comfortable” talking about death with their patients.
Last year the Director of Public Prosecutions issued revised guidelines setting out the factors that make the prosecution of someone who helps a loved-one die less likely. Chief among them was the fact that the suspect had acted solely out of compassion.
An inquiry is now being held, organised by the think-tank Demos, into whether the law should be changed further to legalise “assisted dying”.
Mrs Smith said the West Midlands Strategic Health Authority, which serves a population of 5.4 million with a budget of £8.5 billion, was “neither for nor against assisted suicide”.
But she told the inquiry, which is chaired by former Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer: “Our view is that the current law does not match the requirements of the 21st century.
“We really do need to look at a system that allows public and patient choice in ways that the law does not allow at the minute. At the moment we have a situation where only some people can make that choice.”
“If you can afford to go to Switzerland that’s fine but if you can’t, you are stuck within a system that doesn’t really allow you to talk about it, never mind have access to it.”
She said protecting patients against abuse was important but added: “There is abuse in the current NHS system – some people are assisted – but we don’t articulate that very well.”
Professor Tim Maughan, a consultant oncologist, rejected Mrs Smith’s arguments, warning that some patients who wanted to commit suicide because they thought they were terminally ill recovered. Others may feel under pressure to choose assisted suicide if it were an option that medics were legally obliged to offer.
“I think the current law has got it right,” he said. “There are principles behind it which are very sound. Doctors should not kill their patients. The vulnerable should be protected.”
The debate came as the Department of health’s cancer and end of life care director, Sir Mike Richards, called for a new debate about how the service doctors provide to patients who are dying.
The quality of NHS care for elderly and terminally ill patients has not improved enough since the Labour government launched a drive to raise standards in 2008, he said.
“The area where we need to make the biggest changes is probably in the hospital sector. It is where most patients die. It is where we have the biggest cultural challenge.”
Sir Mike said more patients should be able to choose to die at home and called for better training for doctors and nurses to help them feel “comfortable” discussing death with those in their care.
Tags: Doctors, GPs, Health Direct, Health Professionals, National Health Service, NHS, NHS Deaths