26th June 2019


Healthcare Professionals for Change


In October 2010, a group of healthcare professionals began a public campaign to change the law in relation to “assisted dying”. The “Healthcare Professionals for Change” (HPC) feel that assisted death is not being fairly considered as a viable means of ending a patient’s life

Dr Ann McPherson, Chair of the HPC stated: “By taking a hostile approach to a change in the law on assisted dying, medical bodies…are failing to adequately reflect the views of all their members.  Many of us believe dying patients should not have to suffer against their wishes at the end of life.  Alongside access to good quality end of life care, we believe that the terminally ill, mentally competent patients should be able to choose an assisted death, subject to safeguards”.

There have been many calls over the years to change the law on helping people to commit suicide. Organisations such as “Exit” (now “Dignity in dying”) have campaigned for the “right to die”.  Cases such as Diane Pretty and more recently Debbie Purdy have challenged the legal system to take the steps that would legalise euthanasia. Lord Joffe’s Patient (Assisted Dying) Bill 2003 and his Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill 2004 were concerted (although unsuccessful) attempts to change the law.

Of course, terms such as “assisted dying” and “Physician Assisted Suicide” (PAS) sound far less horrific than “euthanasia”, which essentially is what a change in the law would effectively allow to happen.

The current penalty in law for assisting or encouraging a person to commit suicide  (under The Suicide Act 1961 Section 2-amended by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 Section 59) is on indictment, a prison sentence not exceeding 14 years.

This sanction was the main reason Debbie Purdy challenged the legislation via the Courts, asking the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) to give an undertaking that her husband would not be prosecuted under the 1961 Act, if he assisted in her taking her own life.

The Courts required the DPP to clarify the position on assisted suicide and who might be prosecuted (as part of the 1961 Suicide Act requires that no prosecutions under Section 2 can be made without the consent of the DPP).

In February 2010, the DPP did so.  He outlined 16 public interest factors in favour of prosecuting a person who assisted another to attempt to commit or commit suicide and 6 factors against prosecution of an individual. The DPP was clear that;
”This policy does not change the law on assisted suicide. It does not open the door for euthanasia. It does not override the will of parliament” (Keir Starmer QC DPP February 2010).

One key factor in supporting prosecution, cited by the DPP was:

“The suspect was acting in his/her capacity as a medical doctor, nurse or other healthcare professional…and the person was in his/her care.” (CPS Policy on Assisted Suicide 25 February 2010).

It can hardly be made more clearly that a HCP must adhere to the current legislation or face the consequences of breaking the law. No amount of sophistry and name changing can cover the act of euthanasia. All our codes of professional conduct as HCPs state we are bound to protect rather than prematurely end a patient’s life.

The doctors and nurses who have joined their names and voices to the HPC’s call to legalise euthanasia state they do so with good intentions and want a voice for those healthcare personnel who they feel are being ignored.

In many ways, they are the lucky ones. They can speak for themselves. History has taught us that the vulnerable, the sick and the elderly have not been able to speak for themselves and have often been the first to suffer. Keep the law, as it is to help protect those who need it most.



CME McKinley (c) 2010 Independent Association of Nurses in Palliative Care