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Dame Joan Bakewell backs calls to legalise assisted suicide

09:20 14 March 2014

Dame Joan Bakewell

Dame Joan Bakewell

© Nigel Sutton email pictures@nigelsuttonphotography.com

Broadcaster and Primrose Hill resident Dame Joan Bakewell has urged parliament to back proposals allowing doctors to help those suffering terminal illnesses end their own lives.

The 81-year-old presenter and campaigner – who says she carries a Do Not Resuscitate card with her at all times – said there was now “a groundswell” of public support for legalising assisted suicide and suggested doctors were currently “living in fear of being likened to Harold Shipman” should they discuss the issue with patients.

A passionate debate is poised to take off over the next few months as the Assisted Dying Bill goes through parliament.

Lord Falconer’s proposals do away with parts of the 1961 Suicide Act –which outlaw helping an individual take their own life – and allow doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to consenting, terminally ill patients with less than six months to live.

Last week, sources within the government suggested MPs would be given a free vote on the bill.

Dame Joan said it was “essential everyone be allowed to vote on their own conscience”.

“Once you’ve been through the situation yourself, with a friend or loved one, you realise how important an issue it is,” she told the Ham&High.

“We live in a world where people have the right to choose all sorts of things in their lives but not how they die. There are strong opinions on both sides, but I am clear in my own support of the bill.

“I carry a Do Not Resuscitate card with me at all times and I’ve made sure my family know what my wishes are should the eventuality arise.

“But the protection for doctors is also important.

“The case of Harold Shipman [the doctor found guilty of killing 15 of his patients in 2000] casts a shadow over all of this.

“Doctors are scared of being branded as killers should they be allowed to help their patients end their suffering.

“But sufferers are already being killed – not by doctors, but by their disease.”

The bill comes after guidelines were issued four years ago which went some way towards protecting those who acted “out of compassion”.

Then director of public prosecutions Sir Keir Starmer – whose office published the guidelines – said he could not go further as his hands were tied by the old legislation.

But a 2013 YouGov poll has since found more than three quarters of people would now support a radical change in the law in favour of legalising assisted suicide.

It has led campaigning groups on both sides to start upping their war of words.

“People who want to end their suffering have been forced underground,” said Mickey Charouneau, a spokesman for Dignity in Dying, which supports assisted suicide.

“One person every fortnight is travelling to Switzerland from the UK to end their lives – Lord Falconer’s proposals will help end that absurdity.

“The bill contains clear safeguards and similar measures have been successfully adopted in other countries around the world.”

But Care Not Killing, a UK-based alliance of disability groups, healthcare providers and faith-based bodies, suggested changes in the law could lead to pressure on the vulnerable.

“Any change in the law to allow assisted suicide or euthanasia would place pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives for fear of being a financial, emotional or care burden upon others,” it said.

“The present law making assisted suicide and euthanasia illegal is clear and right and does not need changing.”

The House of Lords is set to debate the issue in four months time.

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