Assisted suicide bill ‘could create another Shipman’

Sheila Duffy gives evidence to the Holyrood health committee. Picture: Andrew CowanSheila Duffy gives evidence to the Holyrood health committee. Picture: Andrew Cowan
Sheila Duffy gives evidence to the Holyrood health committee. Picture: Andrew Cowan
Proposals to legalise assisted suicide could result in a doctor getting a “taste for killing” similar to that of former GP Harold Shipman, an opponent of the plans warned yesterday.

Dr Peter Saunders, the campaign director of Care Not Killing, said he is “really worried” that a small group of doctors could abuse their power and become “enthusiasts” for assisted suicide.

However, Sheila Duffy, of the pro-assisted suicide group Friends at the End, accused Dr Saunders of “unnecessary hyperbole” with his reference to serial killer Shipman.

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The pair were giving evidence on the Assisted Suicide Bill to Holyrood’s health committee.

The bill, which is being taken forward by Green MSP Patrick Harvie, would allow those with terminal or life-shortening illnesses to obtain help in ending their suffering.

It would allow people aged 16 and over to place a formal request with their GP to end their life.

Requests must be signed off by two doctors, before one of them supplies a licensed facilitator with a prescription to enable assisted suicide to take place.

Dr Saunders told MSPs: “[The bill] gives far too much power and not nearly enough accountability to doctors.

“And it gives it to doctors who are not really in a position to make the judgments that the bill requires.”

He added: “There are some doctors – I am talking about a minority here – who really scare me, that if they were to have this power and authority, they would abuse it.

“I don’t see anything in this bill to stop a Shipman, who gets a taste for killing and authorising, to abuse this situation.”

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Dr Saunders said the eligibility criteria in the bill could be “stretched”, with approval for assisted suicides coming down to “whether a doctor is prepared to put a tick in a box”.

He added: “Once you give doctors the power and authority to be able to make a judgment to end life according to criteria and you don’t have the teeth to hold them accountable, they will push the boundaries.”

Dr Saunders said he is most worried about provisions in the bill to remove culpability for incorrect judgments or inconsistent actions as long as they are made in good faith, and a lack of penalties for or clear process to investigate careless errors.

“I am really worried about a small group of doctors who would be enthusiasts for this,” he said.

Responding to his comments, Ms Duffy said: “This reference to Dr Shipman – I really do think this is unnecessary hyperbole.

“It is fudging the issue. What this bill needs is cool, clear, pragmatic discussion looking at the evidence and looking at the ­statistics.

“Dr Shipman was an unbalanced, drug-using individual. Nobody would defend any of his actions under any circumstances.

“I think that just clouds the whole issue.”

Dr Bob Scott, campaign spokesman for My Life, My Death, My Choice, said: “I don’t recognise the description of medical practice that we have heard from Dr Saunders.”

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Shipman was convicted in 2000 for killing 15 patients with lethal injections, while an inquiry later concluded that he had in fact killed about 250 patients between 1971 and 1998.

Guidance from the General Medical Council, produced following the Shipman case, forbids doctors from even discussing assisted dying with patients.