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Medical opinion

There 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."

Official opinion supports the present law
At the moment, the British Medical Association (BMA) is against legalising voluntary euthanasia. At their 1997 conference they voted against any immediate change in the law on assisted dying. However, they do support living wills and a patient's right to refuse treatment. In 1999 the BMA said:

"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."

However, many doctors support a change in the law
In the September 1996 issue of the BMA News Review, the results of a survey of over 750 GPs and hospital doctors showed that doctors were divided over legalising voluntary euthanasia. The results were as follows:

  • 46% of doctors supported a change in the law to allow them to carry out the request of a terminally ill patient for voluntary euthanasia.
  • 44% were against euthanasia and supported the present law
  • 37% said they would be willing to actively help end the life of a terminally ill patient who had asked for euthanasia, if the law allowed it.

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.

Doctors DO carry out voluntary euthanasia
In 1994, a report published in the British Medical Journal showed that British doctors do practice voluntary euthanasia, despite the law. The study by Ward and Tate, from Cambridge University, found that 32% of doctors surveyed had agreed to a patient's request to be given treatment to help them die more quickly. A larger proportion — 46% — said they would consider giving treatment to help someone die if it were legal to do so. In November 1997, 200 GPs responded to a survey carried out by Pulse magazine. The survey revealed that 93 GPs (47%) had given treatment to ease a patient's death. 49% said that they had been in a position where they felt that easing a patient's death, other than with the intention of relieving symptoms only, was the right thing to do.

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:

Question Yes No
Have you ever been asked by a patient to help them die? 44% 56%
Have you ever assisted a patient's death at their request? 15% 83%
Do you think doctors should have the power to assist death without fear of prosecution:    
a) by withholding treatment 68% 31%
b) by withdrawing treatment 67% 32%
c) by administering pain killers in the knowledge that they are likely to shorten life? 60% 37%
d) by prescribing lethal drugs for patients to take themselves? 18% 75%
Do you believe in a patient's right to die? 63% 33%
Do you think it is a good idea for patients to make living wills? 69% 27%

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.

What about the Hippocratic Oath?
The Hippocratic Oath was established around 2,500 years ago in Greece. Some doctors use it as a guide to carrying out their work. Part of the Hippocratic Oath states:

"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.