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The ethical and legal aspects of suicide and assisted suicide have been the subject of vigorous debate in the recent past but the controversy is not new. This paper, loosely based on an invited lecture to the 2010 summer meeting of the British Thoracic Society, seeks to explore the dilemma by tracing the attitude of English law to medical involvement in death and dying over the last 75 years.
The controversy ignites
The Society for the Legalisation of Voluntary Euthanasia was founded in 1935 by a group of eminent medical and clerical practitioners and held its first meeting in BMA House. These origins seem improbable in the light of the current attitude of both professions to assisted dying, but the new Society was enthusiastic and introduced its first Private Member's Bill in the House of Lords in 1936. It was defeated, one of those voting against being Lord Dawson of Penn, then Physician to the Royal Household. He defended his opposition on the grounds that legislation to permit intervention intended to hasten death is unnecessary because as soon as a medical practitioner is satisfied a patient's death is inevitable, there is a duty to minimise distress and act accordingly. This opinion was expressed in his management of the death of King George V in January of that year.1 The King suffered from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and had developed an exacerbation shortly before Christmas 1935. His condition deteriorated until he was bed-bound, comatose and had developed pleurisy. By the end of the third week in January, Lord Dawson was satisfied the King would not recover and, late one evening, administered a large dose of morphine followed by cocaine. About an hour later the King fell into a deep sleep and thereafter died peacefully at ten to midnight without regaining consciousness. Two reasons …