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Over half of MPs back assisted dying law for doctors

16 December 2009

More than half of MPs have said doctors who help patients die should not be prosecuted, according to a new poll.

The Ipsos MORI poll, carried out earlier this summer on behalf of Dignity in Dying, reveals that 53 per cent of MPs think that doctors who assist patients commit suicide should not be prosecuted where the patient is terminally ill, is mentally competent and has made the request directly.

The poll results were released this morning, on the last day of the DPP consultation on new assisted suicide guidance for prosecutors.

Keir Starmer QC started consulting on an offence-specific prosecution policy in assisted suicide after the ruling in Debbie Purdy’s case where the law lords held that the DPP’s refusal to issue such guidance was unlawful under human rights law.

The head of the CPS issued interim guidance on 23 September, with a final policy expected in spring 2010.

Earlier moves to legalise assisting have so far been defeated in Parliament. These included Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying Bill, which was rejected in the Lords in 2007, and an amendment by Lord Falconer to the Coroners and Justice Bill, also rejected by the Lords on 14 July this year.

Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, said the survey raised hopes that the campaign for a change in the law would now begin to resonate with decision makers in Westminster.

“Surveys of MPs’ opinions when compared with public opinion polls indicated that MPs and the public are poles apart on this issue,” she said. “However, this survey indicates that the gap may be narrowing, with over 50 per cent of MPs taking part in the survey stating that a doctor should not be prosecuted for assisting a terminally ill, mentally competent adult to die, at the patient’s request.”

She continued: “Better alignment between the public’s and their representatives’ views is crucial. The Director of Public Prosecution’s interim guidelines on assisted suicide draw a distinction between malicious encouragement of suicide and compassionate assistance to die.

“For the first time giving formal recognition that in certain circumstances people should not be prosecuted for helping someone to die. But the factors counting against prosecution only apply to friends and family of the person who dies, not their health professionals. We still need to provide a safeguarded means of assisted dying for the terminally ill. But, only Parliament can do this by changing the law.”

The Assisted Suicide Act 1961 made suicide lawful but still punishes aiding or abetting suicide with a maximum 14 years’ prison sentence.

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