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Think tank warns MPs of dangers of US suicide law

More than a thousand Britons would kill themselves each year by doctor-assisted suicide if a controversial US law is imported to Britain, a think tank has told MPs and peers.

Safeguards to limit the law to only those patients who are terminally ill will also become meaningless, a new report says, as some doctors began to interpret the rules liberally in practice.

The report by Living and Dying Well says that in Oregon, the first US state to legalise assisted suicide, this has led to “doctor-shopping” for physicians who will overlook criteria that say candidates must be terminally ill, mentally competent and making a choice to die free from coercion.

The result is that even people who are simply depressed are being helped to commit suicide, the report says.
It argues that if a British version of the 1997 Oregon Death With Dignity Act were adopted cases of assisted suicide would also rise year on year and most of them would not involve the terminally ill but the elderly.

It shows that the number of assisted suicide deaths in Oregon has nearly quadrupled from 24 in 1998 to 95 in 2009, a figure which represents 19.3 per 10,000 deaths in the state.

“If this experience were to be replicated in England and Wales we might expect to see a total of 948 deaths annually as a result of physician-assisted suicide,” says the report, called What is Happening in Oregon?

“If Scotland is included, where MSP Margo MacDonald currently has a Bill before the Scottish Parliament that would legalise both physician-assisted suicide and physician-assisted euthanasia, that would add a further 104 deaths to the total from physician-assisted suicide alone, giving a total of 1,052 deaths from this source annually in Great Britain.”

The paper was sent out to parliamentarians in Westminster and Edinburgh this week as campaigners renew their efforts to change the law on voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide. Many assisted suicide campaigners are holding up the Oregon law as a model to be imitated because its regulations suggest that assisted suicide can be effectively policed.

But Lord Carlile, the founder of the newly formed think tank, which is made up mostly of medical and legal experts, said: “Having examined the evidence, we are convinced that changing the law to allow these practices would pose serious dangers to large numbers of seriously ill or disabled people.”

The report’s author, Dr David Jeffrey, a senior lecturer in palliative medicine at Edinburgh University, bases his arguments largely on 12 annual reports from the Oregon Public Health Division on the working of the act since 1998.

They show that when the Oregon law was enacted about a third of all people who requested help in committed suicide were instead referred to psychiatrists but by last year no one was being sent to counsellors.

Dr Jeffrey said that the trend in rising cases of assisted suicide combined with a halt in psychiatric referrals can be explained by “doctor-shopping”, whereby people seek out physicians who will grant assisted suicide practically on request.

He said that independent research “suggests that some applicants with clinical depression are being given lethal drugs to end their lives without prior psychiatric assessment”.

The report also criticises the Oregon Act for failing to monitor the deaths of patients once a licence for suicide has been granted, saying there was no way of knowing if a person was ultimately coerced or poisoned.

Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, Professor of Palliative Medicine at Cardiff University, and a co-chairman of Living and Dying Well, said: “With the expert knowledge British doctors now have to relieve suffering, there is no need for anyone in this country to die in pain or distress.

“The majority of doctors want nothing to do with ‘assisted dying’ and, if it were ever to be made legal here, we would see the ‘doctor shopping’ that is such an unhappy feature of the Oregon scene.”

But James Harris, spokesman for Dignity in Dying, the assisted suicide campaign group, said independent research had found the Oregon law to be working safely and that support for assisted dying had grow.

He said: “The campaign to change the law on assisted dying is about choice, people should not have to suffer against their wishes in the final weeks or days of life, but it is also about better protecting people.

“We are encouraged by the efforts our opponents are going to, to undermine a change in the law with decision makers, which confirms our view that assisted dying legislation is on the horizon.”