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article imageExpert: Terminally ill patients should be aided to commit suicide

By Andrew John     Aug 30, 2011 in Health
A UK dementia expert says terminally ill patients who wish to end their lives should be medically assisted to commit suicide.
Martin Green, chief executive of the English Community Care Association, which represents nursing and care home groups, also advises the UK Department of Health.
Green makes his case in an interview in the Daily Telegraph.
Assisted suicide is illegal in the UK and carries a possible 14-year jail sentence, although the Director of Public Prosecutions issued guidelines last year suggesting that prosecution would be less likely for family members helping loved ones to die with dignity.
Christian groups and some disability campaigners are against the practice, saying it could lead to pressure on old people to end their lives.
But Green wants ministers to review the current law and wants to see either a referendum or a free vote in Parliament on the issue.
“If you’re going to give people ‘choice’, it should extend to whether or not they want to die,” he tells the paper. “If people have got the capacity to make an informed choice, then it is my view that they should be allowed to make the informed choice.”
The Telegraph describes Green as one of the country’s leading experts on the needs of the elderly.
“He is among the panel of experts that drafted new Department of Health guidelines on services for dementia patients, published in July, and has been one of the government’s three national dementia ‘champions’ since 2009,” says the paper.
Locked-in syndrome
Meanwhile, a case is expected to begin next month in Britain’s High Court of a man known only as “Martin” who is seeking permission for doctors to help him die.
Martin suffers from “locked-in syndrome,” and is unable to move after he suffered a stroke three years ago. Only his eyes can move, and he has composed a letter to the High Court by staring at letters on a computer screen, slowing building words and sentences.
In his statement to the court, Martin says his life now is “undignified, distressing and intolerable.” He continues:
“It is extremely important to me that I feel able to control when and how I die. As is no doubt appreciated, almost every other aspect of my life is now out of my control and I want, at least, to be able to control my death.
“I am clear that I no longer wish to continue to live and hope that people can respect this wish and now allow me to die. I want it over with without delay.”
Martin’s wife, named as “Felicity,” says she would want no part in ending her husband’s life, but understands his wishes.
She told the BBC earlier this month, in words spoken by an actor, “I’m not prepared to help him. I would find that very hard to do and to live with the consequences, but I am prepared to be with him during the process to give him support and because I love him.”
Martin’s lawyers will be asking for a similar ruling by the Director of Public Prosecutions to the one that now applies to loved ones: that they would be protected from disciplinary action or prosecution for assisting a terminally ill person to die.
Rugby player
In a notable case in the UK in 2008, a young rugby player was paralysed from the chest down in a training accident in which his spine was dislocated.
The former schoolboy international was taken to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, where it is legal to help people to commit suicide by taking lethal poisons.
Daniel James, 23, was accompanied to the clinic by his parents, Mark and Julie. However, after a criminal investigation was launched on their return to the UK, the Crown Prosecution Services said it would not be in the public interests to prosecute the couple.
The Director of Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, said at the time: “This is a tragic case involving as it does the death of a young man in difficult and unique circumstances. While there are public-interest factors in favour of prosecution, not least of which is the seriousness of this offence, I have determined that these are outweighed by the public-interest factors that say that a prosecution is not needed.
“I would point to the fact that Daniel, as a fiercely independent young man, was not influenced by his parents to take his own life and the evidence indicates he did so despite their imploring him not to. I send my condolences to Daniel’s family and friends.”
At the time, more than a hundred Britons were thought to have travelled to the Dignitas clinic, although “most were in the final stages of a terminal illness,” the Telegraph reported then.
Alzheimer’s disease
Earlier this year, Terry Pratchett – author of the famous Discworld series of fantasy novels – made a TV documentary about assisted suicide, having himself been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
He told the American National Public Radio recently: “I believe everyone should have a good death. You know, with your grandchildren around you, a bit of sobbing. Because, after all, tears are appropriate on a death bed.
British author Terry Pratchett  an outspoken advocate of assisted suicide
British author Terry Pratchett, an outspoken advocate of assisted suicide
Creative Commons
And you say goodbye to your loved ones, making certain that one of them has been left behind to look after the shop.”
He went on: “I prefer not to use the word ‘suicide’ because suicide is an irrational thing, whereas I think that for some people asking for an assisted death is a very rational thing.
“People who I have met who have opted for it are very rational in their thinking. And indeed so are their families, quite often, because they know they are in the grip of a terrible disease for which there is no cure and they do not want to spend any more time than necessary in the jaws of the beast.”
However, the Catholic News Agency reported in August 2011 quoted Catholic novelist Michael D. O’Brien as saying Pratchett was displaying “false compassion.”
O’Brian continues: “No matter what a person may tell themselves about the unjust taking of human life for supposedly ‘compassionate reasons,’ the inner conscience of man does not let him live easily with this falsehood.”
Death of ‘Doctor Death’
One of the most outspoken proponents of assisted suicide, Dr Jack Kevorkian, died aged 83 in a Detroit hospital in June this year of respiratory and renal problems.
Kevorkian – known in the media as “Doctor Death” – began serving eight years of what was to be a prison term of 10 to 25 years for second-degree murder. He was released in 2007 on the condition that he would offer no more advice on suicides.
Kevorkian – an American-Armenian pathologist whose sentence began in 1999 – claimed to have assisted in 130 suicides, according to CBC News.
“Dying is not a crime,” he once famously said.
Kevorkian was portrayed by Al Pacino in a 2010 HBO film, You Don’t Know Jack: The Life and Deaths of Jack Kevorkian. The film was based on the book Between the Dying and the Dead: Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s Life and the Battle to Legalize Euthanasia.
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