ONE in five people believe doctors should be allowed to help elderly people who are tired of living to die, new research suggests.
The findings, published by the Journal of Medical Ethics, are based on the survey responses of just under 2,000 members of the general public in The Netherlands, where physician assisted suicide has been legal since 2002.
Doctors in The Netherlands can only legally help patients to die if the request is voluntary and has been well thought out, and if the patient is suffering unbearably with no prospect of improvement, but researchers want to gauge public support for a wider change in the law.
A move to introduce new legislation on assisted dying is underway in the UK but only to make it legal for terminally ill adults with less than six months to live to be allowed to ingest a dose of life-ending medication.
Labour peer Lord Falconer’s “assisted dying” proposals will get their second reading in the spring. Its patrons include Sir Terry Pratchett, Sir Patrick Stewart and Zoe Wanamaker.
The Bill will not result in more people dying, but in fewer people suffering, Lord Falconer said.
Campaign group Dignity in Dying is among the organisations that has led calls for a change in the law.
Yorkshire widow, Anne Norfolk, whose husband Patrick, 65, a sufferer of motor neurone disease, died at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland in 2012, is backing the campaign.
After being diagnosed with the condition in 2008, Mr Norfolk, from Swanland, near Hull, was gradually robbed over the next four years of the things he loved doing, walking, cycling and gardening, and became convinced that it was better to take his life than endure the indignity of full-time carers, and having his family endure his distress and pain.
Last month, Mrs Norfolk told the Yorkshire Post: “I do think public opinion has moved. It is in a dire position to be in - there’s no one to speak to. Professional people can’t talk to you in case it is construed that they are in favour of it.”
Sarah Wootton, the campaign’s chief executive, said there should not be an extension of the assisted dying proposals to people who are not terminally ill.
“Our position is in line with the British public who are overwhelmingly supportive of assisted dying. This is further backed up by a poll released this week which found 79 per cent of disabled people in the UK support assisted dying but this support falls off when asked whether non-terminally ill people should be allowed to die,” she said.
“A number of jurisdictions, both in Europe and the US, have some form of law enabling assistance to die and it is up to each country to decide which criteria they think is best. Dignity in Dying believes that assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally-competent adults only is the most appropriate law for the UK, and this is why we are supporting Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill.”
Pavan Dhaliwal, head of public affairs at the British Humanist Association, takes a different view.
“The findings of this study are not surprising - as humanists we believe strongly in the principle of personal autonomy, our obligation as a society to alleviate suffering and the right of mentally-competent adults to make decisions about their lives, as long as they do not result in harm to others,” she said.
“With this in mind if an elderly person has made a clear, uncoerced settled and informed decision to end their life but is unable to do so independently, simple compassion calls out to us to give assistance-this would make for a far more humane society.”
Professor Ray Tallis, chairman of Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying, disagrees, arguing that there is a fundamental difference between helping someone to control the time and manner of their death when that death is imminent and unavoidable and helping someone to die who is not terminally ill.
The Care Not Killing alliance is opposed to any law change.
Alistair Thompson, the group’s managing director, said: “The current law exists to protect the vulnerable and those without a voice; the disabled, terminally ill and elderly, who might otherwise feel pressured into ending their lives. It does not need changing.”
UK law currently states that it is not a crime to attempt suicide but there is a sentence of up to 14 years for assisting it.