Pharmacist driven to break a bad law.

The Daily Telegraph has been following another case relating to assisted suicide / murder. Pharmacist Bipin Desai was accused of giving his 85 year old father a lethal drink containing concentrated morphine stolen from the pharmacy where he worked. The high court judge threw out the charge of murder, allowing Mr Desai to go free with a nine month jail sentence suspended for nine months for assisting suicide.

What message do cases like this give to our society? That it is acceptable to steal lethal drugs and apply them out of compassion… but make sure you can demonstrate that you were asked to do it? Is that the best we can offer?

But what if you are not “lucky” enough to have access to appropriate drugs and know how to use them? Or there wasn’t enough evidence that you were being asked to help someone die, if indeed you were? Or you just couldn’t bring yourself to break the law – leaving the dying person to suffer at their end of life, against their will; and leaving the family to suffer as they powerlessly watch the unacceptable situation unfold.

This story is by no means isolated. Only last month another case was reported with some similarities.

We owe our elderly people and their families much better care than this. Where are the safeguards in the current law? Where is the compassion? How can people be expected to deal with the natural desire to do the best they can for their loved ones, but then have to face not just the loss of their relative, but a stressful and difficult criminal investigation which turns their life upside down for years afterwards?

There is a better way, as demonstrated in the more enlightened countries that allow a legal option of medically assisted dying. At a minimum, BEFORE any lethal drugs are administered:

  • The person wishing an assisted death should make their end of life wishes known well in advance – ideally in a written, independently witnessed statement, in addition to an advance decision.
  • All possible support should be given to help people adjust to changed capabilities before choosing to end their life.
  • All available palliative care options should be fully considered and found unacceptable.
  • The situation should be assessed by multiple professionals, over a period of time, in particular by interviewing the person concerned to determine that their wishes are clear, consistent and made without coercion.

We need a better approach to end of life care – one in which the option of a medically assisted death can be openly discussed with the care team, and as a last resort, carried out by trained professionals.

We need to protect people – the dying, the vulnerable, the well meaning families – from situations like this court case. The judge appears to have taken a reasonable course of action, given the current law. But the real tragedy is that these sort of situations are allowed to happen – by a broken law and restricted medical practice which prevent some people having the “good death” they wish for.