Assisted Dying and the Impact on Nurses in the UK
Jacqueline S Beattie
Adult Nursing student at The School of Nursing and Midwifery, Queen’s University Belfast and International Nursing Student at Washburn University, Topeka, Kansas. Abstract
This article explores the professional legal and ethical issues of assisted dying in the United Kingdom, with emphasis on how arguments both for and against impact the nursing profession. Key words: - Assisted Dying – Assisted suicide – Suicide act – Nursing role Article
Assisted dying is one of the most controversial issues currently being debated in Britain, whether pro or anti each side presents compelling and passionate arguments. Rarely is the subject out of the media’s spotlight and the ethical issues surrounding the topic are hotly debated. With public opinion seemingly shifting to a more accepting nature towards the concept (Hendry et al, 2012), and with certain European countries and American states successfully legalizing and implementing it… will Britain follow suit? If so what impact will this have on the nursing staff of our country? This article will clarify the current legal standpoint for nurses in the UK, and will also explore the various ethical dilemmas the topic brings forth. Nurses must be aware of the facts surrounding assisted dying in order to engage in informed debate and provide adequate support to patients exploring the idea, but equally in order to form their own opinion on the subject. The past year has seen continuing pressure on the legal system and Government to make changes to the current law regarding assisted dying however it still remains illegal within the UK. The Suicide Act of1961 outlaws the encouragement or the assistance of suicide or attempted suicide in England, Wales and Northern Ireland with maximum liable imprisonment of 14 years; whilst Scotland currently has no specific law on the subject theoretically someone could be prosecuted under homicide legislation. This makes it clear that whilst people have legally have the right to take their own life, another person will be held legally accountable if they are considered to have assisted that person in any way. Care not Killing an anti-assisted dying campaign alliance claims the law is “clear, right and does not need changing” however Dying in Dignity a campaign organization argues that this law is out of date and no longer reflects the morals and values of today’s society. Research by Bangor University published in November 2012 studied the views of over 62,000 people and claimed that two-thirds of people accept assisted suicide. In the highly publicized High Court case, Tony Nicklinson who suffered from locked-in syndrome and who could communicate only by blinking, tried to obtain the right to have a doctor end his life without fear of prosecution and received much public support including that of the British Humanist Society who stated ‘In cases where a patient is suffering incurably, is permanently incapacitated, and has made a clear and informed decision to end their life but is unable to do so independently, the law should allow a doctor to intervene.’ Mr. Nicklinson however lost his case in August 2012; he stated that he was ‘devastated’ by the courts decision, adding ‘I am saddened that the law wants to condemn me to a life of increasing indignity and misery’. Another man, known only as Martin, who is 47 and suffering from locked in syndrome, also lost his case to end his life with help from doctors. Both of these cases raise the issue of poor quality of life, unbearable suffering, dependency and loss of self. There is no doubt that any person with compassion will be emotionally moved by the plea of loss of dignity, loss of humanity and loss of hope that these men argued has become their reality and day to day life, also claiming these feelings would only progressively worsen making the prospect of living for them unbearable. Legally nurses cannot endorse assisted...