Page last updated at 16:49 GMT, Saturday, 25 July 2009 17:49 UK

'Debate needed' on assisted death

A hospital room
Helping a patient to die can carry a 14-year jail sentence for nurses in the UK

A "considered" and "objective" debate is needed on assisted suicide, the head of the Royal College of Nursing says.

It comes after the RCN, which has 400,000 members, shifted its stance on the matter to be neutral.

RCN chief executive Dr Peter Carter said now would be a good opportunity to try to "unscramble" a "complex and highly emotive subject".

The Royal College of GPs said it remained opposed to assisted suicide and opposed to any change in the law.

Its chairman, Professor Steve Field said: "We believe that better palliative care, better pain control and better support for patients is the way forward."

Health staff who provide patients with the drugs needed to kill themselves currently face up to 14 years in jail.

'Broadly split'

Dr Carter said the RCN felt the position was "confused" among the public and professionals.

He said nursing staff were very clear that assisted suicide is against the law.

The level of response is actually extremely low, so it's very hard to draw a clear conclusion about what their members really want from the numbers
Steve Fouch
Care Not Killing alliance

But he added: "What has changed is that the college will now be able to engage in a debate, understanding that our members are broadly split 50:50 on this."

He cited a survey of more than 1,000 of his members, which suggested 49% were in favour of assisted suicide while 40% opposed it. A further 9% were undecided.

Dr Carter said he believed there was confusion about this "complex and highly emotive subject" and "now would be a good opportunity to try to unscramble that".

On Saturday a poll of 1,500 people for the Times also suggested 74% of people wanted doctors to be able to help to end lives.

Support for the concept was especially strong among those aged 55 to 64, the survey claimed.

But the college was "not in favour of assisted suicide", Dr Carter told BBC News, and a "very clear distinction" existed.

"We are now adopting a neutral position and we now intend to engage on a more considered debate on what is probably one of the most emotive subjects in the public eye."

'Low response'

Christian Nurses and Midwives said it regretted RCN's policy shift.

Secretary Steve Fouch questioned whether the college should have altered its position based on the views of a relatively small number of its members.

"Although it was good that they went to consultation, the level of response is actually extremely low, so it's very hard to draw a clear conclusion about what their members really want from the numbers.

"It's probably about 600 members who've actually stated publicly that they'd like to see a change in the law, so it's impossible to say if that's representative of what the Royal College's members actually feel and believe."



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