Specialist in care of older people supports Bill

I live in England but would like to support this Bill in the hope that, if it is passed, it may act as a precedent to encourage England to provide similar help for its citizens. I am a Geriatrician Emeritus (Saint Bartholomew’s and Hackney Hospitals, London). Scottish doctors, eg, Ferguson Anderson, James Williamson and Bernard Isaacs, were pioneers in helping to establish my specialty, the care of old people, in the NHS in the 1950s and 60s. I hope that a similar understanding of the special needs of today’s patients may motivate Scottish doctors, and the public, to give serious consideration to the importance of this Bill.

During my professional lifetime, I have witnessed the advance of medical technology which nowadays can often prolong terminal illness in conditions which patients find intolerable, not only because of pain (which may be able to be partly relieved) but because of loss of dignity and purpose. This requires new thinking about established precepts of ‘patients’ best interests’ and ‘sanctity of life’. Patients themselves now need to be consulted about what they want from available treatment, and when they might prefer to be helped to die.

When I graduated, doctors were able to include a peaceful death in caring for their patients – indeed it was often the only real help they could provide for many illnesses and was much appreciated. This is now prohibited. As a result, doctors are virtually turning into technicians and the practice of medicine is becoming debased. Few doctors like to discuss the implications of illness. Clearly, we can no longer make life and death decisions about our patients, but we should be able (if we wish) to help them in the dying process if they request it.

This is what I hope that this Bill, with its safeguards, may make possible. Over the past 10 – 20 years, similar laws have been passed in other Western countries, in the USA and Europe, without anticipated abuse and supported by the majority of their citizens. One country has even extended its help to patients from abroad. It is humiliating that Britain currently tolerates a situation in which terminally ill people have to make an expensive and exhausting journey, by air or by road, to Switzerland to obtain the relief of suffering which surely should be available in their own beds at home.

I have read the contents of this Bill and fully endorse its proposals that there should be no criminal or civil liability for assisting suicide for patients ‘with capacity’ who request it, either for doctors or facilitators. I think the proposal for ‘licensed facilitators’ with experience and understanding of the law, could be both a safeguard and a help to doctors, patients and their families, and is an important asset of this Bill. I also appreciate the section on ‘Savings for certain mistakes and things done in good faith’. Medicine is a difficult art and if it is carried out responsibly, always includes elements of compassion or chance which may be mistaken from the best of motives. The fact that this Bill recognises this, to me makes it a truly humane document which deserves its country’s most sympathetic support.

Dr Mary Bliss MB BS, FRCP

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