ALMOST 20,000 terminally ill people in Britain are helped to die by their doctors each year, a leading expert on euthanasia has claimed.
Dr Hazel Biggs, director of medical law at the University of Kent and author of Euthanasia: Death with Dignity and the Law, calculates that at least 18,000 terminally ill people a year die this way.
Her estimate is the first public attempt by a credible figure to put a statistic on "assisted dying" rates, and looks certain to reignite the emotive debate over the practice.
The claim, published in the European Journal for Health Law, will place renewed focus on the doctor-patient relationship, which pro-euthanasia campaigners want changed, so medical staff can help conscious, terminally ill patients in pain to end their lives.
Dr Biggs’ calculations are based on data from countries like the Netherlands and Australia, which have published research into assisted dying rates, as well as evidence taken from British doctors.
"If you extrapolate from countries that have published data, you’re looking at quite a large number of patients who may have had their end hastened, not necessarily with their consent," she said.
"What this says to me is that we know these practices are going on, but they are completely unregulated. We don’t know how many people are volunteers or non-volunteers, and maybe because of that the law ought to be changed so that people can give voluntary consent, which will give them more protection."
It is thought an aging population has meant that an increasing number of doctors are taking private decisions to aid the early demise of terminally ill patients, usually by increasing drug doses.
Deborah Annetts, chief executive of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (VES), said there was urgent need to clarify regulations governing assisted dying.
"The medical profession doesn’t want the public to realise they are making these decisions. It shows the need to make the patient the decision-maker. When it’s left to the doctor, there is always the risk of abuse," she said.
Liberal Democrat MSP Jeremy Purvis, who is spearheading moves to draft a bill on the issue at the Scottish parliament, said: "I don’t think there is any doubt there are many people who die because of doctors who commit the act through compassion."
A survey by the Voluntary Euthanasia Society this month found that 47 per cent of people said they were prepared to help a loved one to die, even if it meant breaking the law.
A spokeswoman for the ProLife party said: "Surely the response of a compassionate society is to alleviate the pain, to love and comfort the patient, and to try and restore a sense of self-worth until death comes naturally."