Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Guidelines for British doctors asked to assist suicides

The British body for regulating doctors, the General Medical Council, has announced that it is working on guidelines for telling doctors what they should do if a patient asks for help in committing suicide. There is an increasing number of Britons seeking to go to Switzerland to seek death at suicide clinics. There will be a public consultation early next year. Niall Dickson, the Chief Executive of the General Medical Council, 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."

The guidance considers factors that might be relevant in determining the seriousness of each case, in the context of the different actions doctors may take in assisting patients who wish to end their lives. The new guidance will not cover euthanasia (in which a doctor's actions have directly led to a patient's death), as standards on this are clear.

The legal position of assisted suicide in England and Wales is unclear. It is clearly illegal, but there are doubts about whether charges would be brought against a doctor who assisted someone in a suicide. In 2010 Keir Starmer, the public prosecutor, issued liberalised guidelines which focused on the intention of the person assisting. There is a case currently in the courts which could raise the issue of whether doctors could help with impunity. ~ GMC, Dec 14, Guardian, Dec 15

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