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Dignity in Dying welcomes greater clarity for doctors on patient requests for assisted dying

“It is essential that doctors feel able to have conversations with dying patients who want to choose an assisted death about their choice and the alternatives, with the support of their regulatory bodies”

The General Medical Council (GMC) has today launched a consultation on its draft guidance for case examiners when considering cases where a doctor is alleged to have assisted in a suicide. The General Medical Council is consulting on the guidance until May 2012 and will publish a final version of guidance in the summer.

Dignity in Dying campaigns for a change in the law to allow terminally ill, mentally competent adults the choice of an assisted death within strict safeguards; in the absence of such a law we welcome greater clarity for doctors on the law as it stands. At present it is difficult for doctors to know definitively how they should respond when a patient considers choosing an assisted death. The Director of Public Prosecutions’ (DPP) guidelines indicate that amateur compassionate assistance to die will be forgiven subject to a number of factors, but there is a specific factor in favour of prosecuting healthcare professionals who assist. This has led to confusion as to what constitutes assisting and how the guidelines impact on a healthcare professional who assists a loved one to die.

Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying said:

“We hope that the GMC’s guidance will offer much needed clarity to doctors and their patients on what is currently a grey area of law and practice. At present different medical bodies interpret the Director of Public Prosecution’s (DPP) guidance on assisted suicide differently; causing uncertainty for health professionals and potentially greater suffering for patients at a time when they need their doctors’ support the most. For example, the Medical Defence Union advises doctors not to engage in discussion with patients on these issues, whereas the Royal College of Nursing recommends that nurses should have conversations with patients who request help to die, to explore their motivations and the alternatives.

“It is essential that doctors feel able to have conversations with dying patients who want to choose an assisted death about their choice and the alternatives, with the support of their regulatory bodies. It is clearly possible to have an open, non-judgmental discussion with a patient about their concerns and their reasons for wanting an assisted death, without providing information about how a patient might achieve this. These discussions are vital to explore a patient’s concerns and to ensure that all medical support available has been offered before a patient takes this decision.

“Whilst the draft guidance is helpful, it does not address all the situations where clarity in needed. It does not, for example, say whether doctors should advise the relevant authorities if they believe a patient is making plans to be assisted to die, either in this country or abroad.

“It is clear from our members, and from feedback from other patient organisations, that this issue is not going away; patients will find a way to have greater control over the end of their lives, be that travelling abroad to die or attempting to end their lives at home, with or without help, and in the absence of a safeguarded assisted dying law, we need to ensure that patients can explore all alternatives with medical professionals before taking this decision.”

Dignity in Dying will respond to the consultation. We hope that the final guidance produced in the summer will provide welcome clarity for all.


Notes to editor:

About Dignity in Dying:

  • Dignity in Dying campaigns for greater choice, control and access to services at the end of life. It advocates providing terminally ill adults with the option of an assisted death, within strict legal safeguards, and for universal access to high quality end-of-life care.
  • Dignity in Dying has over 25,000 supporters and receives its funding entirely from donations from the public.

Media Contacts:

For all Dignity in Dying media enquiries please contactJo Cartwright on 02074797737, 07725433025 or at