Doctors split over assisted dying issue

A survey on the End of Life Choice Bill has highlighted division among medical professionals....
A survey on the End of Life Choice Bill has highlighted division among medical professionals. Photo: Getty Images
The medical profession is split on the issue of assisted dying.

Just over half are opposed but a sizeable minority favour a law change.

New Zealand Doctor yesterday released results of a survey of subscribers, carried out as Parliament considers the End of Life Choice Bill.

That Bill, if passed, would permit people to request assistance in dying if they were competent and suffered from a terminal illness likely to end their life within six months, or had a grievous and irremediable medical condition.

The survey found 52% of doctors totally opposed assisted dying if death was imminent, while 32% supported it.

The numbers shifted slightly if the patient's condition was irreversible but death was not imminent, with 56% opposed and 31% in favour.

The numbers did not surprise University of Otago law lecturer Colin Gavaghan, who has written extensively on the subject.

"The medical establishment has been anti all along, and when doctors are surrounded by those values, I guess a lot of them internalise them," Dr Gavaghan said.

"If the experiences in Oregon and Canada [where assisted dying laws exist] are any indication, a lot would come around to an extent once they got used to the idea.

"I should say that, in a way, I'm sort of reassured that our medics aren't chomping at the bit to get to do this - and I don't think they are in those places either - but the flat-out refusal position might be expected to soften somewhat."

The magazine commissioned Horizon Research to do a survey of 1540 GPs and registrars and 545 responded.

Opposition to assisted dying was strongest among women, while 9% of people neither supported nor opposed a law change.

The survey also asked doctors whether they supported a law change allowing people to draw up binding End of Life directives if they had a terminal or incurable condition; 53% were opposed and 36% in support.

When that question was changed to being a competent patient in the event of suffering dementia, 56% were opposed and 30% were in support.

Although almost a third of doctors surveyed supported a law change to permit assisted dying, a significant number of those doctors would not help someone end their life.

Just 24% said they would write a prescription for a lethal drug (57% would not), while only 15% would be prepared to administer a lethal drug intravenously - 68% would not.

Dr Gavaghan said if the End of Life Choice Bill was passed and not enough doctors were willing to prescribe or administer appropriate drugs, there were ways to work around that, such as not requiring doctors to be the people who prescribed the drugs, or recruiting enough who were.

"That's a bit tricky for a couple of reasons, one of them being the insistence by conscientious objectors that they should experience no professional disadvantage as a result of their refusal," Dr Gavaghan said.

"We can just about accommodate that with abortion, as there are [usually] enough who are willing to participate ... in a situation where the majority were objecting, though, it may have to be renegotiated."

The End of Life Choice Bill passed its first reading in December last year and is now being considered by the Justice select committee.

Comments

Which is worse? An assisted death in peace with preparations for body removal, or an unassisted natural death (hopefully in peace), with alarm and panic for sudden body removal for nurses and doctors.

The patients change their minds..one week, up for a.d, next chatting in the day room.

 

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