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Euthanasia Tuesday, 28 November, 2000, 16:22 GMT
Euthanasia debate continues
Doctor vote
Doctors voted for a conference on physician-assisted suicide
While euthanasia is illegal in the UK, many people believe it is inevitable that the practice will eventually become widely tolerated by society.

Some doctors are in favour of a relaxation of the current rules, and the Liberal Democrats have called for a Royal Commission to examine the issue. Both the Conservatives and Labour, however, are opposed to any move to legalise mercy killing.

Many doctors believe that withholding or withdrawing treatment from patients with no prospect of recovery - often called passive euthanasia - is acceptable.

The majority of the medical profession is opposed to the concept of physician-assisted suicide, whereby a doctor actively helps a patient to die, usually by providing fatal doses of drugs.

The concept of active euthanasia, whereby a doctor will actually administer a fatal dose, has very little support.

However, many doctors are willing to administer lethal doses of drugs to relieve pain - so long as death is not the primary intention.

The official policy of the British Medical Association is to oppose all forms of euthanasia.

The BMA is conscious that it is out of step with the majority of public opinion.

Twin track

The association has adopted a twin track approach.

It launched a public consultation exercise on withholding and withdrawing treatment from terminally ill patients last July.

The consultation period ended in October, and the BMA is currently processing the results with a view to issuing guidelines to doctors, nurses and carers about what is generally deemed to be acceptable.

It is hoped that the guidelines would help to protect doctors from the threat of legal action if they decided to withdraw or withhold treatment.

A discussion document put out by the BMA to launch the consultation suggested that one criterion for deciding whether to withdraw or withhold treatment was whether the patient retained the capacity to form a human relationship.

The current law on withholding and withdrawing treatment is unclear.

Physician-assisted suicide conference

Dr Ian Bogle
Dr Ian Bogle is the leader of Britain's doctors
Representatives at the annual BMA conference in Cardiff in July 1998 also voted to hold a major conference to re-examine the issue of physician-assisted suicide.

That conference will take place within the next 12 months.

The conference heard that it was essential that doctors re-thought their opposition to physician-assisted suicide in the light of changing public opinions.

Even though it was decided to hold a conference, the majority of speakers in the debate warned that it would be folly to relax the association's policy.

A motion that would have obliged doctors to "accede to clear requests by patients that their life should be allowed to end" was overwhelmingly rejected.

Among the most prominent supporters of a re-think is former BMA council chairman, Dr John Marks.

Dr Marks told the 1998 conference: "In over 40 years of practice, I have never deliberately killed a patient, but I have given them increasing and, in some cases, huge doses of drugs to ease their suffering, knowing full well I was shortening their life.

"Maybe I was a hypocrite, but I do know that when my time comes, I want a doctor who will give me a lot of assistance."

Former chairman of the BMA's ethics committee, Dr Stuart Horner, told the conference that doctors were duty bound to discuss end of life issues.

He said: "Decisions on end of life issues are becoming an increasing part of modern medical practice. They will not go away just because we refuse to talk about the issues."

Royal Commission call

The Liberal Democrats want the government to establish a Royal Commission to examine euthanasia issues.

A party spokesman said: "At the moment the situation is quite confused.

"Quite a lot of doctors are allowing patients to die and aiding patients to do so in an unofficial way."

He said suicide was no longer illegal, and that patient autonomy was now legally enforceable. On the other hand doctors were liable for their actions under the law.

A spokesman for the Conservative Party said: "Euthanasia is illegal. We believe that it should remain so and would not call for a Royal Commission."

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