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As the assisted suicide debate continues many issues have come to light around the argument for and against its legalisation in the UK. Disputes about the patient’s right to choose have often overshadowed the vital role played by health care professionals and the huge responsibility, ethical dilemmas and legal consequences they could face in such a contentious and sensitive situation.

There is already evidence to suggest that many health care professionals are opposed to assisted suicide as it goes against their code of ethics and their commitment not to intend the death of a patient and to protect them from harm. Other reports, articles and research has indicated that those in palliative care feel that more insight into the process and scope of end of life care would help provide understanding as to why the legalisation of assisted suicide should be resisted, in order to focus on maintaining and improving care of dying patients.

However, much of the debate remains ambiguous and a recent survey of five hundred UK nurses conducted in August 2009 highlights some of the key issues, which continue to emphasise the complexity of this topic.

Ethical vs. Legal?

Nearly 72% of the nurses surveyed felt that assisted suicide presents both a legal and ethical issue for healthcare professionals. 14% believe it is predominantly a legal issue and the same percentage stated they felt it was mainly an ethical issue.

Who decides?

Possibly one of the most controversial aspects of this debate is regarding who should decide whether assisted suicide would be an appropriate course of action. Over 44% of respondents felt this decision would be best made via a joint consultation between the patient and relevant health care professionals. However, 30% maintain the final decision should rest solely with the patient. 5% or less felt the responsibility should lie only with medical professionals and nearly 14% were undecided.

Further understanding

One of the central issues highlighted by the survey was that over 80% of respondents felt there was the need for enhanced information, education and training for health care professionals including nurses, around palliative care.
Just less than 80% felt there would definitely need to be an official training route, recognised by national UK law that would qualify a nurse, doctor or other relevant medical professional to facilitate assisted suicide, should it be legalised. Currently, The Suicide Act 1961 gives a blanket prohibition to all assistance with suicide.

Input into further discussions

40% of those surveyed felt that the recent shift by the Royal College of Nursing to a ‘neutral’ stance on assisted suicide could affect potential future changes in legislation, whilst 27% felt it wouldn’t have such an impact and 33% weren’t sure.

Other commentary and coverage of this debate has suggested that nurses must be involved in any discussions relating to a change in the law, as well as made aware of the implications to their profession should assisted suicide ever be legalised in the UK.

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