September 1, 2008

Suicide Row GP Talks of His Future

By Kate Foster

A DOCTOR who was suspended from his job after giving sleeping pills to a suicidal patient has revealed he plans to help the campaign to legalise euthanasia.

GP Iain Kerr was last week suspended from practising medicine for six months after prescribing the tablets to an elderly woman who later took her own life.

In his first interview since the hearing, the Glasgow GP told Scotland on Sunday that he would never again provide drugs in the same circumstances.

But he said he would work with like-minded MSPs who are lobbying for a change in the law to allow assisted suicide.

Kerr, 62, whose case has reignited the debate over euthanasia, has been invited by Lib Dem MSP Jeremy Purvis to the Scottish Parliament to speak to politicians about the issue.

The GP was found guilty of misconduct by the General Medical Council last month after it heard that he prescribed 20 sodium amytal tablets, a sedative, to an 87-year-old patient who had osteoporosis and was suicidal. The woman disposed of them but later killed herself with a different set of tablets also provided by Kerr.

Last week, NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde temporarily banned Kerr from practising from his surgery, the Williamwood Medical Centre, Clarkston.

Speaking exclusively to Scotland on Sunday at his home in Newton Mearns, the married father-of-three said it was up to politicians, not doctors, to change Scotland's assisted suicide laws but said that he would help campaigners as far as he could as a practising GP.

He said: "I would never do it again. If a patient asked me to help them die in the future, I would say I was very sorry but that I could not be of practical help. However, I would offer them moral support and listen to what they had to say.

"A change in the law has to be left to politicians. Assisted suicide is not something I have talked to people about on a regular basis. But everyone I have talked to has been sympathetic to the idea.

"My feeling is that your opinions on this matter are very much related to your experiences, for example seeing an elderly person gradually deteriorating.

"I think people want to have some control over what's going on. It's the loss of control over your circumstances that's the worst. If I could be of use to MSPs, I would do so, as long as it was not going to put my work in jeopardy."

The patient, known as Patient A, is understood to have witnessed the slow deterioration of her sister from bone cancer and had firm views about how she wanted her own life to end. Kerr prescribed her the sodium amytal tablets in 1998. However, she disposed of them when she learned the GP was being investigated by health officials over his views on assisted suicide.

In 2005, she used Temazepam in a failed suicide bid and three days later Kerr prescribed her with more Temazepam.

Although he says he did not intend her to use it for the purpose of suicide, the woman killed herself 11 days later using a cocktail of Temazepam, antihistamines and painkillers.

Kerr added that the past few months had been uncertain as he did not know whether he would be allowed to practise as a GP again. However, he will return to work early next year.

Last night his words were welcomed by Purvis, who supports a change in the laws on assisted suicide, and by independent MSP Margo MacDonald.

Attempting to assist a suicide in Scotland is a criminal offence. But the Scottish Parliament has the powers to legislate on assisted suicide.

The option supported by Purvis is similar to laws in the US state of Oregon, where terminally ill patients can receive a lethal prescription from a doctor that they take at a time of their choosing. The doctor does not have to be present to administer the dose, but friends or family are there.

Another option is to follow the Dutch model, where laws allow a lethal dose to be administered by a doctor.

Campaigners say the fact Kerr was handed a relatively lenient suspension and not struck off altogether, as well as the fact that he was strongly supported throughout his case by dozens of his patients, suggests the tide of opinion is turning in favour of more relaxed euthanasia laws.

Purvis, who has raised the issue several times in Parliament, said a full political debate was now urgent and that he would introduce a new bill on assisted suicide. He said: "I absolutely welcome Dr Kerr to the campaign. I am inviting him to the Parliament to speak about his experience and give his perspective.

"We are in a no-man's land situation with the law stating that assisted suicide is illegal but with the medical profession effectively admonishing Kerr. The law is an ass, as far as this situation is concerned."

Margo MacDonald, who suffers from Parkinson's disease, said: "Dr Kerr seems to be a terrific doctor full of humanity and understanding and able to put his patients' wishes first."

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