July 26, 2008

Discordant Ring to Doctor’s so-Called ‘Insurance Policy’

By Stephen McGinty

WHEN I tell people that my Primary 3 class was taught how to sing the theme tune from M*A*S*H, few people believe me. "Wasn't that 'Suicide is Painless'?" they enquire, hesitantly. Yup. The culprit was a supply teacher, but a very good one: even though she only taught one class I still remember every word. I can only assume the headmistress caught sight of her conducting a class of six-year- olds, sitting cross-legged on the carpet and swaying as they warbled out lyrics such as, "The game of life is hard to play/Gonna lose it anyway", and decided there must be a more suitable candidate for infant music teacher. Pity. She'd promised that the following week she'd teach us Killing Yourself to Live by Black Sabbath.

You might expect my early exposure to such a secular hymn to the soothing balm of self-administered oblivion to render me at least slightly partial to the idea of "physician-assisted suicide", but I'm afraid not. There is just something about the whole business that chills me to the core. In fact, this week, I was left scratching my head about the verdict passed by the General Medical Council on Dr Iain Kerr, the Glasgow GP and advocate of physician- assisted suicide who prescribed 30 sodium amytal sleeping pills to an elderly patient who was suffering from osteoporosis and feared being a burden on her family. He described them as an "insurance policy". The patient later disposed of the tablets, fearing Dr Kerr would get into trouble as he was already being investigated over his views on assisted suicide. The patient, an 87-year-old woman, eventually killed herself in 2005 using a cocktail of Temazepam, anti- histamines and painkillers. Dr Kerr was this week told by the chairman of the GMC fitness to practise panel: "You made a serious misjudgment and embarked on a potentially criminal act."

Dr Kerr's punishment was to have his licence to practise suspended for six months. Six months? Didn't Dr Raj Persaud, the psychiatrist, receive a three-month suspension for plagiarising the work of another psychiatrist? Does this mean that appearing to assist in the suicide of a patient is only twice as bad as copying other people's homework? I suppose to many people it is not even twice as bad, in fact - while one is the work of a cheat the other is an act of kindness.

Dr Kerr quoted Dickens in branding the law an ass and insisted it was out of step "with what a significant minority think". Others would argue that a majority would support his actions. The British Social Attitudes Survey found that 80 per cent of people supported voluntary euthanasia for "a person with an incurable and painful illness, from which they will die".

There is no doubt that society is moving towards a major debate on the issue. Margo MacDonald, the independent MSP, recently explored the issue in a moving documentary for the BBC and would like Scotland to emulate Oregon or the Netherlands in legalising assisted dying. The British Medical Association, meanwhile, has flip- flopped with the issue, moving towards a neutral stance at its annual conference in 2005, before switching back to opposing it in 2006.

Me? I'll continue to side with those who believe society would lose something if we took a step away from offering the finest palliative care possible, stopped assuring the dying that they were not a burden and started instead to issue little packets of pills as - wink, wink - an "insurance policy".

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