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Legal intervention to bring greater clarity on end of life rights

This week Dignity in Dying is intervening in a court case with an aim to improve clarity on end-of-life rights for patients and healthcare professionals under the current law. The ‘Martin’ case will be heard in the Supreme Court over the course of the week.

A lack of clarity for healthcare professionals is dangerous

Whilst the Director of Public Prosecution’s (DPP’s) policy on assistance to die indicates that compassionate amateur assistance to die is unlikely to result in prosecution (subject to a number of factors), it states that a factor in favour of prosecution is the involvement of a healthcare professional.

However, the Policy does not explain how this interacts with other factors likely to tend in favour or against prosecution. Nor does it explain how it relates to real-life situations healthcare professionals working with terminally-ill patients are likely to face.

As a result healthcare professionals may feel they cannot respond to patient’s questions about controlling their death (including travelling abroad to die) without risking being accused of encouraging suicide.

Unable to talk to healthcare professionals about their options, some patients take decisions without being fully informed. We believe this is dangerous and has negative consequences, including failed attempts by some to end their own life, causing unnecessary suffering and trauma for the patient and their loved ones.

We believe the DPP’s policy should provide more information on how it relates to healthcare professionals, specifically outlining what healthcare professionals can and cannot discuss with patients under the current law.

Dignity in Dying’s intervention

Dignity in Dying is intervening in the Martin Case to support the first of Martin’s arguments: that the policy is unclear to healthcare professionals.

Our submissions in this case will be supported by Professor Ray Tallis , Chair of Healthcare Professionals for Assisted dying (HPAD) and three additional witnesses – a healthcare professional and two people suffering from a terminal illness, Margaret John and Roch Maher.

Margaret John is 73 years old and was diagnosed in 2009 with incurable ovarian cancer:

 

‘‘I do not want to die yet, but when I do I want to know I have choices. I have discussed managing my end-of-life care with my GP and he was very clear that he could not discuss assisted dying with me, but we were able to talk about other aspects of end-of-life care, like pain relief. I would not attempt to discuss assisted dying again with a healthcare professional as I would not want to put them in a difficult position or at risk of prosecution in order to fulfil my desire for what I consider to be a good and dignified death.

‘Without being able to discuss this with my healthcare team I do not really know what options are available to me in order to have the sort of death I hope for, and this uncertainty has left me feeling helpless and out of control. I fear my only real option is to attempt to end my life alone, and I don’t think I should have to resort to that. People in my position, who are terminally ill, should have choice and control over their death, we should not be forced to suffer against our wishes at the end of life.’

Roch Maher is 52 years of age and is married with two grown-up children. He was diagnosed with Motor Neurone Disease (MND) in 2009:

‘The current situation leaves terminally ill people like me, who want choice, feeling they have nowhere to turn: I would like to have an open conversation with my doctors about assisted dying but I have decided against it as I don’t want them to be accused of encouraging suicide.

‘This case could improve the current situation but we really need an assisted dying law which would safeguard people in my position and doctors, and protect family members.’

The purpose of this witness evidence is to explain to the court how the current lack of clarity in the DPP’s policy has affected these witnesses and others in a similar position.

We believe that if patients are able to talk about assistance to die with their doctors it will give them peace of mind. Furthermore, it will also reduce the risk of patients taking a decision to end their life without having discussed the reasons or the treatment options available to them beforehand.

What Dignity in Dying is trying to achieve by intervening

We hope that further clarity in the DPP’s policy could improve the situation for healthcare professionals and patients under the current law.

Dignity in Dying hopes to see:

Greater clarity on how the Policy on assisted suicide applies to healthcare professionals.

Better regulatory guidance from healthcare professionals from their professional organisations on the current law and how to respond to patient requests for assistance to die

Peace of mind for patients who want to be able to discuss these issues more openly with their doctors and other healthcare professionals without putting them at risk of prosecution

Reduced risk of patients taking a decision to end their life without having discussed their reasons and treatment options with a healthcare professional.

We will keep you up-to-date with the progress of the case. If you have any questions please get in touch.