Chris Lancelot: Assisted suicide law must include an opt-out

Who could fail to be moved by the plight of Sir Terry Pratchett, now facing early onset Alzheimer's disease?

The GP Record, by Fran Orford
The GP Record, by Fran Orford

Or those people with motor neurone disease, MS or terminal cancer? Yet at a time when politicians are emphasising the importance of choice in healthcare, the law still prevents patients from exercising the ultimate choice, to kill themselves if living becomes intolerable.

That may change. But by the same token, one person's freedom to end their life must never impinge on another's not to become involved. Any law allowing assisted suicide would have to contain cast-iron opt-out clauses for medical, nursing, pharmacy and administrative staff - as well as relatives.

There is a problematic precedent. In the 1960s, parliament passed a law to permit abortion. It was intended only for occasional use, particularly in cases of fetal abnormality, or where continuing the pregnancy would cause an intolerable strain on the mother. Recognising the intense religious and ethical dimensions involved, MPs inserted a clear opt-out clause for those professionals who wanted no part in procuring terminations.

Yet within a few years, it became more difficult for conscientious objectors to obtain a job on a gynaecology rotation, or to undertake training in gynaecology, on the grounds that everyone was required to 'share the load of a job none of us likes'.Half a century later, in many regions, it is almost abortion on demand. Within the past two years, one senior Labour politician has opined that doctors shouldn't become gynaecologists unless they are prepared to perform terminations. So much for conscientious objection and opt-outs.

In the light of this, those who support assisted suicide must consider how 'legislation creep' might occur. In time and with the increasing burden on the economy from large numbers of people over 80 years old, will NHS protocols on euthanasia mutate into 'requiring doctors to discuss choices, including euthanasia, with all elderly people', with a trip to the GMC for those who refuse? And eventually to forced euthanasia for the most sick?

My son wants to be a doctor. In 2050, will politicians be telling him he shouldn't have joined the profession if he wasn't prepared to kill when clinically appropriate?

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