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The anguish experienced by people struggling with terminal disease and their families is well understood, and a pain-free end to life by assisted suicide is a choice many people would wish to make. However, assisted suicide is a subject which fiercely divides opinion.
In a guideline ruling, the High Court has reiterated that it is against the law and that doctors who advise sick patients on how best to take their own lives could face disciplinary action.
The hearing was brought on behalf of a man who suffers from ‘locked in’ syndrome and can do almost nothing for himself. He wished to receive advice from a reputable doctor on how to end his own life, or practical medical assistance in travelling to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich, which assists sick or disabled people who wish to die.
Doctors in the UK had proved unwilling to accede to his request in the light of guidelines published by the profession’s governing body, the General Medical Council (GMC). The guidelines make it plain that doctors who assist or advise those wishing to kill themselves are at risk of disciplinary action.
The man challenged the guidelines, claiming that they conflicted with his human right to choose the time and manner of his own death. They were said to be irrationally restrictive, particularly when compared with the policy of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP), which affords doctors who give such advice or assistance a high degree of confidence that they will not be prosecuted.
In dismissing the man’s challenge, however, the Court found that the GMC was entitled to take as its starting point the principle that doctors must obey the law, whatever views people may have about the law’s merits. The GMC was not obliged to take its lead from the DPP and there could be no valid criticism of a policy which was designed to protect the reputation of the profession.