In December the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, QC, signalled that the parents of Mr James would not face charges for accompanying their son to Dignitas. But Debbie Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis, recently failed in her attempt to clarify the law.
The Court of Appeal said that it would not rule for a prosecuting policy that would allow people such as Ms Purdy’s husband to assist her suicide, although prosecution would be unlikely. She intends to challenge this judgment in the House of Lords next month.
In a fringe debate at the RCN congress in Harrogate, nurses appeared divided on the issue.
Dr Carter said that he was not suggesting that nurses should break the law or professional codes of conduct, but added that the RCN’s written guidance, to be published later this year, would offer legal advice and note the duties of nurses to respect patients’ wishes as well as actively doing them no harm.
He said: “Assisted suicide may be illegal but the reality is that the public are talking about it, the media are talking about it and some politicians are talking about it.”
Current guidelines from the Nursing and Midwifery Council, he added, do not cover issues where patients might request advice.
The NMC said that its own Code of Conduct clearly stated that nurses are expected to act lawfully at all times. “Any nurse who is anxious about whether the advice they intend to give may breach the code should first discuss the matter with other appropriate members of the care team or contact one of our professional advisers for further guidance and support.”
Kath McHale, a nurse who is also a bereavement counsellor in North London, told the RCN conference that the number of people asking her for advice about assisted suicide was “growing considerably”. She said: “Who has got the experience and the information if people want choices?”
The Department of Health said there was currently no advice to nurses “on something that is illegal”. If a nurse discussed options with a patient for helping them die they could risk being prosecuted.
By David Rose, The Times, London