Nurses at the RCN Congress have called for more support in the event they are asked by patients to assist them committing suicide
The college is currently opposed to assisted suicide but is consulting members about the issue because of the high public profile of the issue.
Assisted suicide is illegal in the UK, although some people have avoided the ban by attending clinics in countries where it is legal, such as Switzerland.
Kath McHale, of the RCN’s Islington Branch, said: ‘Who has got the information and who has got experience if people need and want choices?’
There were a wide range of viewpoints expressed at the panel debate, which is designed to inform the consultation process.
Speaking against assisted suicide, Paul Wainwright, chair of the RCN’s ethics forum, said the organisation must take a stance on the issue to give guidance to its members.
‘For a healthcare professional to support assisted suicide seems to me to be wrong and particularly unwise for those to who claim to be in the caring profession,’ said Prof Wainwright. ‘I think helping people to kill themselves is one thing a nurse should not do.’
Vicky Robinson, nurse consultant in palliative care at Guys’ and St Thomas’s NHS Foundation Trust, added: ‘What is worse, not to kill people who might want to die or to risk killing people who may want to live.’
Professor Martin Johnson, of the University of Salford’s School of Nursing, said assisted suicide could be necessary in extreme circumstances, such as those portrayed in the film, A Short Stay in Switzerland, where she plays Dr Anne Turner, who opted to kill herself at the Dignitas clinic in 2006.
He also mentioned the case of a patient, Annie, whose cancer left her in such a distressing state that not even close relatives could bear to be near her.
‘There is nothing sacred in dying without dignity in the manner of Annie or Dr Anne Turner. It is more sacred if a person has a choice to control the time and place of death at a time of interminable suffering,’ he said.
Professor Carol Haigh, of the department of nursing at Manchester Metropolitan University, said the UK should adopt a model pioneered in the state of Oregon, where nurses can opt out of helping patients commit suicide.
‘There is a choice for practitioners. Who can patients turn to when they are making the most important decision that they are ever going to make in their lives?’
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