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Euthanasia Tuesday, 28 November, 2000, 16:26 GMT
Dr Moor: Landmark verdict
Dr David Moor faced murder charges
The acquittal of Northumberland GP Dr David Moor had great significance for medical practice in the UK.

The medical profession had awaited the outcome of the trial keenly.

Although euthanasia is illegal in the UK, doctors are allowed to administer potentially lethal doses of painkilling drugs to relieve suffering, provided they do not primarily intend to kill the patient. This is known as the doctrine of double effect.

Most doctors, however, believed the situation was unsatisfactory, and that they could face prosecution simply for trying to do their best for their patients.

Doctors admit similar acts

Many doctors have admitted in private that they have given lethal doses of drugs to patients knowing full well that the patient will die.

But because, until now, the law has been unclear, doctors would not admit they had taken such action in public for fear of prosecution.

Those that had made sure they could not be held accountable by being vague about details.

What made the Dr Moor case unusual was that not only did he admit in the media to administering a lethal dose of drugs to many patients, he also admitted that he had done so within days of giving the interview.

Dr Moor was charged with the murder of George Liddell
This allowed the police to investigate, and to uncover, the case of George Liddell.

Mr Liddell was an 85-year-old terminally ill cancer patient. Dr Moor was later charged with his murder.

However, while he admitted giving Mr Liddell a dose of diamorphine, Dr Moor said he had only done so to relieve pain, not to kill him.

Dr Moor said he felt as though he was standing trial on behalf of the medical profession.

After his acquittal in May 1999, he said he would do it all over again.

The verdict established once and for all that doctors who administer drugs to relieve pain are acting within the law, whether or not the patient dies as a result.

In the long term, it could also be a major factor in the continuing debate as to whether euthanasia becomes an accepted part of medical practice in the UK.

'Ending life is acceptable'

Dr Michael Irwin, chairman of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, is convinced that Dr Moor was only the most high profile of many doctors who already believed it was acceptable to end the life of a terminally-ill patient providing the medication used is specifically to relieve pain.

He said: "Many doctors in this country help their terminally-ill patients in the same way that Dr Moor has been reported as having helped his patients.

"There was a survey 14 months ago in a medical magazine that showed that half the GPs in this country have helped their terminally-ill patients in a similar way."

'A sigh of relief'

Dr Gerard Panting, head of policy at the Medical Protection Society, which provides doctors with insurance and legal support, said doctors would breathe a "sigh of relief" about the Moor verdict.

He said: "It is quite clear that the judge wanted the jury to look at the care Dr Moor provided in the round - he is clearly a caring practitioner.

"The worry for all doctors in this situation is if they do administer pain relief that leads to the death of the patient how will that be interpreted?

"What the judge did was to emphasise it is the primary intention that counts, and if the primary intention is to relieve the symptoms then it is perfectly lawful to administer whatever dose of drug is required to relieve pain."

'Intention must be to relieve pain'

However, Dr Panting warned that it was still not acceptable for the primary intention of a doctor to be to kill a patient, rather to relieve suffering.

The Medical Defence Union, which defended Dr Moor in court, issued a statement which said: "The lessons for doctors are clear - the law in England and Wales does not permit euthanasia.

"The law recognises that it may be permissible for treatment to be given where necessary to relieve the pain and suffering of a terminally-ill patient even though it could have the unintended effect of hastening a patient's death."

Euthanasia supporter

Dr Moor, who himself died earlier this year, had long been a supporter of euthanasia.

In 1997 in interviews for radio, television and newspapers he openly admitted to helping many terminally-ill patients who were in pain and distress to die by administering fatal doses of the painkiller diamorphine.

When asked in a BBC interview how many times he had helped patients to die, he said: "I would say many times over the 30 years I have been in practice.

"Basically, you address their problems and address their needs and if they have a lot of pain, if they have a lot of suffering, and if the patient's relatives are suffering then you address that with care, compassion and consideration - I would certainly say that over the years I have helped a lot of people to die."

Dr Moor admitted in the BBC interview that he had probably broken the law.

But he said: "I am acting with care, compassion and consideration on behalf of my patients, and I have no problem with that."

BBC Correspondent Richard Wells: "Nobody disputes Dr Moor is a caring GP"
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11 May 99 | Health
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