Under new guidelines, nurses are to be told they could go to prison for talking to patients about Dignitas. It is one of the broader interpretations of the Director of Public Prosecutions’ edicts on assisted suicide. They will be warned they face prosecution if they are found to have discussed any aspect of euthanasia with a patient who goes on to commit suicide.
The new Royal College of Nursing guidelines will remind staff that it is illegal to offer information about assisted dying – including contact details for the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland – in case it is seen as ‘encouragement’.
Last month it emerged that none of the 44 people suspected of helping friends or relatives to die over the past 18 months has been prosecuted. The Director of Public Prosecutions, Kier Starmer, published revised guidelines last year which stated that assisted suicide would remain a criminal offence in England and Wales but that individual decisions on prosecution would depend on the circumstances of each case. The guidance makes clear that someone acting out of compassion, to help a terminally ill patient with a ‘clear, settled and informed wish to die’, is unlikely to face the courts.
There is, however, an extra clause in the DPP’s guidance relating to the professions. The relationship between a nurse and patient (or doctor and patient) is not the same as between two lay persons: for legally, the doctor or nurse has what is known as a ‘duty of care’ and therefore an added responsibility towards the patient. The DPP guidance says that, if the suspect was acting in his or her capacity as a medical doctor, nurse, other healthcare professional, a professional carer (whether for payment or not), or as a person in authority, such as a prison officer, and the victim was in his or her care, then this would be a public interest factor in favour of prosecution.
In the RCN Guidance, nurses are advised not to pass on details such as the address of Dignitas (which you can find on this website): “It is the RCN’s view that it is inappropriate and potentially illegal to provide contact details or website addresses for organisations that promote or provide support for people wishing to commit suicide.”
Nurses are, however, encouraged to explore making a living will (for refusal of treatment) with you. Discussing assisted suicide or euthanasia with your nurse or doctor directly can put them in a very difficult position. If discovered, they could face disciplinary action. Unfortunately, this means the patient is isolated and left to their own devices, whether considering assisted suicide or self-deliverance.