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Friday, 3 May, 2002, 08:50 GMT 09:50 UK
Should doctors be given guidelines to help people die?
Doctors in Britain are to be given guidelines on when patients should be allowed to die.

The General Medical Council (GMC) says doctors need clarity on how to decide when to stop life-prolonging treatment.

Their widest-ever consultation exercise, involving 700 people, found broad agreement that it is not always best for patients to be kept alive.

The new guidelines are expected to stress that families and those close to the patients should be consulted well in advance.

Doctors find themselves in a legal and ethical mine field when considering the future of severely ill patients.

This week, the death was announced of Miss B, whom courts last month granted the right to die.

At the same time, courts have ruled that Diane Pretty, who has motor neurone disease, cannot seek the help of her husband in order to end her life.

Will these guidelines help? Do doctors have a duty to prolong life at any cost? Or should they be allowed effectively to help their patients die?

This Talking Point has now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Every individual has the right to refuse their own treatment

Hugh McKinney, London
There is an enormous moral difference between actively killing someone and withdrawing treatment to allow a natural death. Every individual has the right to refuse their own treatment, and many thousands do so every year. However, the Diane Pretty situation is totally different and mustn't be confused with treatment withdrawal. She was asking the courts for permission for her husband to be immune from prosecution if he kills her at any time in the future by any means. This cannot be right ethically, morally or legally - it would amount to little more than a killer's charter.
Hugh McKinney, London

I think the doctors I have met, so far, due to the nature of their profession, seem to be so remote and aloof, that it makes one wonder if they could actually have what it takes (in case the patient cannot recover): Compassion for another human soul who does not need to suffer unnecessarily!
Joe W, England

People should be allowed dignity and peace

Mel, UK
I think that this is very wise. Doctors have been left to wade through this area on their own. They have had to make decisions for families and for individuals, and have been forced to make people comfortable, while trying to take religions and beliefs into account. There is so much for them to look at and to be aware of and all the time they are doing their best. I believe that when a patient has no chance of surviving and has expressed a wish to die they should be allowed to do so.

People should be allowed dignity and peace. If the time comes I do not want to be preserved at any cost and propped in a chair so I can last another 20 years with only the power to blink. I would rather be remembered as the argumentative, noisy funny girl that I am. I have a life and great quality of life and I treasure it. I really do feel that doctors should be granted totally clear guidelines on when to cease lifesaving treatment and then maybe such painful court cases such as that of Miss B will become a thing of the past.
Mel, UK

Medical practitioners cannot act as professional killers, nor can they equate life with money. Such guidelines are absurd as these doctors have only one noble job to do and that is to save lives and relieve the sufferings of the sick and diseased. You may consider me to be 'pro-life', but tell me which doctor would like to bestow death on his or her patient. Life cannot be considered directly proportional to the kind of money we can afford to enhance its longevity.
Mahesh Chandra Somani, Finland

I think it is a doctor's duty to prolong quality of life, not just life itself. If a patient is suffering then they should be allowed to die, even if they have to be assisted by a third party, ie their doctor.
Lucy, England

If the legal precedent to refuse treatment, food or water has been established then doctors are the individuals who will have to accommodate those legal rights

K Sadler, UK
If the legal precedent to refuse treatment, food or water has been established then doctors are the individuals who will have to accommodate those legal rights. They will need guidelines on how to deal with this difficult issue, including instructions for medical staff who wish to exempt themselves on grounds of conscience.
K Sadler, UK

Send them to an NHS hospital - that usually does the trick.
Simon Moore, UK

I think that we in Britain are finally facing up to that great no-no, death. We all have to die sometime or another. For some of us it is peaceful, for others, it is long and drawn out. We currently spend huge amounts of money keeping people alive when they have little hope of recovery. Given that there will always be a finite budget for health care, I am of the firm opinion that we should spend more on saving younger lives and less on artificially prolonging older ones.

Of course, relatives grieve over any death. Of course, sometimes doctors need to keep someone alive to bring their relatives safely through a critical shock. But it is time that we faced up to the essential transient nature of life, gloried in it while we are here and sign off with dignity, rather than do our best to kill each other, be that through fighting; selling tobacco, alcohol or heroin; constantly denigrating our family or colleagues at work; or standing by whilst one group of religious fanatics tries to take over the world. Only to spend billions saying "Hey, they shouldn't go yet, because we didn't say what we needed to say while they were alive and didn't do the things together we should have done either."

There are many situations where stopping medical care could cross ethical boundaries. It is therefore good that all of us discuss where those boundaries should lie, then support doctors as they implement new policies in those areas. I am not, however, in favour of doctors deciding ALONE where those boundaries should lie. As a profession, they are no better equipped than any of us to make such judgements and, whilst they may know more about the medical mechanics of death than the rest of us, in my experience they are often far less spiritually and emotionally mature than less exalted members of society. They should contribute to the debate, not control it.
Rhys Jaggar, England

A decision not to continue with any and every form of treatment is not a decision to kill the patient

Dr Timothy Chappell, Scotland
Prolonging life at any cost and effectively helping their patients die are not the only alternatives for doctors. No one has ever thought that lives should be prolonged at ANY cost. A decision not to continue with any and every form of treatment is not a decision to kill the patient. Morally speaking, there's all the difference in the world between smothering a patient, and deciding not to resuscitate them if they stop breathing. You can't claim to respect human life if you ignore this distinction. It's good to see from your website on the tragic Diane Pretty case that not everyone has been so hypnotised by the ghoulish enthusiasts for euthanasia that they can't see this distinction any more. Let's hope the GMC haven't lost sight of it.
Dr Timothy Chappell, Scotland

See also:

30 Apr 02 | Health
'Right-to-die' advice drawn up
29 Apr 02 | Health
Right-to-die patient dies
29 Apr 02 | Health
Q&A: Right to die
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