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Assisted Dying Bill could put vulnerable people at risk, professor warns

Ahead of next month's debate on the Assisted Dying Bill in the House of Commons, professor of palliative medicine baroness Ilora Finlay warns that it will not protect vulnerable people

A professor of palliative medicine has said that moves to legalise assisted dying in the UK will fail to safeguard vulnerable people.

Ahead of next month’s parliamentary debate on the Assisted Dying Bill, baroness Ilora Finlay, who is a professor at Cardiff University, co-chair of Living and Dying Well and chair elect of National Council for Palliative Care, argues against the proposals in a 'head-to-head' article in the British Medical Journal.

The private member's bill, championed by Labour MP Rob Marris, requires doctors to decide which terminally ill and mentally competent adults should qualify for assisted dying before a judge confirms those decisions.

But Finlay, who is also a member of the BMA Medical Ethics Committee, says doctors would be expected to assess criteria outside clinical practice, making judgments on a patient’s personal and social situations, and claims such decisions should be taken solely by the courts.

She asserts that the court’s role is 'little more than that of a rubber stamp' with no requirement for further investigations or inquiries.

The proposed legislation would require terminally ill patients to request assisted dying before two doctors independently assess their medical records to check they meet the eligibility criteria.

The patient must be informed of all available palliative care options, and, if either doctor has any doubts about the person’s capacity, they must be referred to a psychiatrist.

The request would then go to a High Court judge of the Family Division, who would again check whether the patient met the eligibility criteria and that they had a voluntary, clear, settled, and informed wish to end their life.

Finlay’s opposition to the bill is pitted against the support of Jacky Davis, a consultant radiologist at London’s Whittington Hospital, chair of the pressure group Health Professionals for Assisted Dying, and member of the BMA's Medical Ethics Committee.

Davis argues that the bill is based on legislation in the US state of Oregon that has operated safely since 1997 (with similar legislation since being adopted by the states of Washington and Vermont) but Finlay claims Oregon’s doctors have sometimes failed to recognise clinical depression in patients pursuing assisted dying.

She claims the bill will improve the current situation in the UK, saying that every fortnight someone travels abroad to die and more than 300 terminally ill people take their own lives each year.

Read the full debate on the British Medical Journal website.

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