The respected assisted-suicide campaigner, Dr Ann McPherson, died a fortnight ago. Will Griffiths examines whether the UK’s policy should be reassessed.
Dr Ann McPherson, who was amongst the best known GPs in Britain, lost her battle with pancreatic cancer on the weekend of 28/29 May. Dr McPherson had an illustrious career as a GP and a campaigner, also finding time to co-write the series of books Teenage Health Freak with fellow GP Dr Aidan Macfarlane. Additionally, she founded Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying, was a patron of Dignity in Dying, Medical Director of the charity Healthtalkonline, and a former chair of the Royal College of General Practitioner’s Adolescent Task Group.
Earlier last month, the British Medical Journal, awarded her the Communicator of the Year award. Dr McPherson is worthy of remembrance, not just for her tireless efforts on behalf of her patients in Oxford, but for her campaigning work in favour of assisted suicide, even when severely ill with pancreatic cancer. Upon learning of the return of her pancreatic cancer in 2009, Dr McPherson wrote an article in the BMJ advocating a change in the stance of the medical establishment regarding assisted suicide. As a result, she founded Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying in October of 2010 – such was the strength of the article’s reception amongst the medical community.
The Swiss city of Zurich voted on 15 May this year, with a majority of 85 per cent, to oppose a ban on assisted suicide, with 78 per cent opposing outlawing it for foreigners. This was certainly an important victory for those in Britain who would welcome a similar choice if on offer in these Isles. To date, 150 Britons have elected to use the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to end their lives via assisted suicide. It has now been over 5 years since the last bill was proposed to change the law on assisted suicide – Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill was defeated in May 2006. To my mind, it is now an appropriate time for this issue to resurface. The Swiss, who have housed the Dignitas clinic since its foundation in 1998, by voting to allow the continuation of assisted suicide practices, surely signify a tolerance or even an acceptance of such practices within their country’s borders. Perhaps this denotes that the time is now right for a rethink on policy around the rest of Europe and, more particularly, here in the UK.
It is well worth noting that assisted suicide and euthanasia are in fact very different areas and should be treated as such with regard to policy. Most of the qualms which come up around this subject tend to be addressing euthanasia, which needs significant legal parameters and a moral and ethical examination, case by case. Whereas a legislative policy adjustment for assisted suicide would be a relatively simple change, requiring considerably less top-down legal orchestration. The procedures employed by Dignitas in their Switzerland clinic are tried and tested and would, I believe, form the basis for a national policy without the need for major adjustment. The two required independent medical checks – as stipulated by the Dignitas procedure – would best be done outside of the NHS to maintain a fully privatised service as a service like this would likely be seen as somewhat controversial if provided as a public service on the NHS.
Personally I do not have anything very much against assisted suicide – provided certain parameters are maintained and strict guidelines adhered to. One of the most common concerns which I have come across is the idea of people being pressured into making this decision – even when (as I believe should always be the case) terminally ill – perhaps by relatives in need of their inheritance. Here again though the Dignitas operational procedure is rigorously thorough in its examinations of each individual case. This raises an important point, on which my opinion differs from that of Dignitas, I feel that assisted suicide should only be available to those who are terminally ill and whose quality of life has been considerably reduced. I do not believe that cases of general life weariness should be taken forwards as this raises all sorts of questions regarding the individual’s mental state. Provided these measures are adhered to though, I see no reason why Dr McPherson’s campaigning legacy should not finally achieve the desired result.