Medical opinionThere is increasing medical interest and support in the United Kingdom for legalising voluntary euthanasia. In 1990, a working party from the Institute of Medical Ethics said:
"A doctor, acting in good conscience, is ethically justified in assisting death if the need to relieve intense and unceasing pain or distress caused by incurable illness greatly outweighs the benefit to the patient of further prolonging life."
opinion supports the present law
"A valid advance refusal of treatment has the same legal authority as a contemporaneous refusal and legal action could be taken against a doctor who provides treatment in the face of a valid refusal."
In July 1995, The Lancet, one of the main medical journals in the world, dealt positively with voluntary euthanasia. The article was called The Final Autonomy, and the final sentence read:
"All we ask is that Medicine moves towards non-medical opinion by admitting euthanasia openly (and more honestly) into all its future discussions of end-of-life decisions affecting competent adults."
many doctors support a change in the law
Twenty-two doctors actually confessed to having broken the law and helped someone to die. Following this survey, Dr Stuart Horner, who was then the chairman of the BMA's medical ethics committee, said:
"...if we genuinely believe that all the efforts of medicine have been exhausted it may well be that in a particular case euthanasia has to be considered. That is a matter for the doctor concerned and I would be the last person to say they had done the wrong thing."
Nurses would also like to see a change in the law. In 1995, a survey carried out by the Nursing Times found that 68% of nurses believed that if people ask for help to end their life, it should be given in some circumstances. 69% of nurses had personal experience of a patient asking for voluntary euthanasia.
DO carry out voluntary euthanasia
The most recent investigation was carried out by The Sunday Times, in November 1998. A confidential questionnaire, answered by 300 doctors, revealed that one in seven had broken the law and helped a patient to die at their request. The full results were:
Whilst most of the doctors who admit to having helped a patient to die seem to escape prosecution, some of them do, however, fall foul of the law. You can find a summary of all these cases in our law pages.
the Hippocratic Oath?
"I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect."
A doctor who follows this oath also promises "not to give a woman a pessary to produce abortion." However, an abortion is now legal in some circumstances, and many doctors perform this operation. The Oath has been changed and updated to fit in with new attitudes and medical practices it is not a code which cannot be altered. At the moment, the British Medical Association (BMA) is campaigning
to update the oath. They argue that it does not reflect the reality of medical practice today. They want the code to recognise that keeping people alive is not the only aim of health care. As R Weir wrote in 1992:
"The achievement of...appropriate medical goals is more important than a literal adherence to an ancient oath whose religious and moral framework is of such limited relevance to contemporary medicine that the oath is frequently altered when used in medical school convocations and increasingly replaced entirely by other kinds of oaths, including those written by medical students themselves."
It is important to remember that the Voluntary Euthanasia Society was set up by a group of doctors and clergy in 1935. Today, the growing support of the medical profession for assisted dying will eventually help to change the law.
NOTE: For those of you who are researching the subject of euthanasia in some detail, our site also carries an in-depth listing of opinion surveys from the UK and around the world. Full academic references are given, together with a brief summary of the findings. Where possible, we've also included links to the research, if it can be found on the internet.