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Assisted suicide rate 'not higher where it is legal'

THERE is no evidence of a higher rate of assisted suicide among the vulnerable and old in countries where it is legal, a court was told.

The High Court heard evidence from a university expert during the challenge to the law by Marie Fleming (58) who is terminally ill with multiple sclerosis.

US professor of medical ethics Margaret Pabst Battin told the court research indicates that laws providing for assisted suicide did not lead to unlawful practices affecting vulnerable people.

In areas where assisted suicide was permitted, a range of conditions and safeguards were applied, said Prof Battin of the University of Utah.

She agreed there had been objections to her findings but did not believe any of those "hold adequate water".

Because of medical advances and people living longer, many of us were now likely to be confronted by having to decide how we die, she also said.

Statistics showed that even where assisted suicide is legal the vast majority of terminally ill people do not die in this way.

MS sufferer Ms Fleming wants orders allowing her to be lawfully assisted in taking her own life at a time of her choice.

She also argues that the DPP is required to outline factors in deciding whether to prosecute cases of assisted suicide, which carry a maximum 14-year prison term.


Counsel for Ms Fleming provided the court with a letter from her general practitioner outlining what would happen if she refused medical treatment.

The doctor said Ms Fleming was in significant pain now and, if medical treatment were withdrawn, she would suffer more and die in significant distress.

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Prof Battin said that she had studied the suicide issue for 30 years. She outlined a range of conditions and safeguards which must be met before assisted suicide or physician-assisted death is permitted in the US state of Oregon.

These included the person's diagnosis being confirmed by doctors, the person being told of feasible alternatives such as hospice care or pain control, the person themselves re-confirming their wishes after a 15-day interval, and a psychiatric evaluation if depression was suspected.

Prof Battin believes that legislation brought practices into the open, allowing them to be regulated and controlled more effectively.

Prof Battin agreed the debate on assisted suicide had occurred in many jurisdictions and many had rejected introducing it.

She rejected suggestions it was not possible to empirically evaluate whether there was coercion of persons to take their own lives.

Michael Cush, for the State, said while suicide had been decriminalised here, the State did not accept there was any right to commit suicide.

The absolute ban on assisted suicide here would be "illogical" if there was such a right, he said.

The case continues.

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