A
review of research carried out over 20 years suggests that UK doctors appear to
consistently oppose euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide (PAS). The
findings — which appear in the latest issue of the journal Palliative
Medicine, — highlight a gap between doctors’ attitudes and those of the UK
public.

The
study, carried out by Dr Ruaidhrí McCormack and colleagues Dr M Clifford and Dr
M Conroy at the Department of Palliative Medicine, Milford Care Centre,
Limerick, Eire, searched through literature from 1990 to 2010 and found 16 key
studies. These examined UK doctors’ attitudes to either assisted voluntary
euthanasia (AVE), or PAS, or both. Qualitative and quantitative data were
included. The majority of doctors opposed AVE in all of the studies but one.

Definitions
of these terms are considered controversial. The authors were guided by the
European Association for Palliative Care (EAPC) ethics task force, who defined
euthanasia as: “a doctor intentionally killing a person by the
administration of drugs, at that person’s voluntary and competent
request.” PAS was further defined as: “a doctor intentionally helping
a person to commit suicide by providing drugs for self-administration, at that
person’s voluntary and competent request.” In both instances, the patient
plays an active role and must provide explicit consent.

One
of the strongest predictors of a doctor’s unwillingness was religiosity, with
the most faithful least likely to consider assisting death, or supporting its
UK introduction. Other factors consistently highlighted were that palliative
care reduces suffering and limits the need for assisted dying, the need for
adequate safeguards were AVE or PAS introduced, and the idea of a profession to
facilitate these practices that does not include doctors.

“Further
studies are necessary to establish if subgroup variables other than degree of
religiosity influence attitudes, and to thoroughly explore the qualitative
themes that appeared,” said McCormack. Themes such as AVE/PAS in the
contexts of technological advancement, increased “medicalisation” and
reducing futile medical treatment, an opt-out clause for individual doctors,
and concern about patient’s mental state and level of autonomy all merit future
research.

According
to a British Social Attitudes survey published in 2007, up to 80 percent of the
British public support voluntary euthanasia by a doctor in the case of terminal
illness, and up to 60 percent support PAS given the same scenario. ~ Science
Daily, March 9

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.