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Retired GP admits helping three patients to end their lives

BMJ 2013; 346 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.f1704 (Published 14 March 2013) Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f1704
  1. Clare Dyer
  1. 1BMJ

A retired GP in Scotland who supports the legalisation of assisted dying has spoken publicly for the first time about how he, when in practice, helped three patients end their lives.

Iain Kerr, 66, told BBC Radio Scotland and the Herald newspaper that he had supplied drugs in three cases where patients thought that their lives had become intolerable and were considering suicide. Each case had been reported to the prosecuting authorities, which had decided that it would not be in the public interest to prosecute.

The General Medical Council suspended Kerr, who practised in Clarkston, East Renfrewshire, for six months in 2008 for supplying pills to an elderly patient with osteoporosis for the purpose of ending her life. The GMC’s fitness to practise panel described his actions as “inappropriate, irresponsible, liable to bring the profession into disrepute, and not in your patient’s best interest.”

Locums filled in at his practice during his absence, and he was accepted back on the list of registered GPs when his suspension ended.

He acknowledged that what he had done was illegal but said that it was not a course of action he had taken lightly. He told the BBC that on each occasion “I insisted that the people involved should contact their relatives, and if the relatives were in agreement with this then I would carry out my part in the agreement.”

Once the drugs were prescribed the decision whether to take a fatal overdose was in the hands of the patient, he said.

He told the Herald that in the 1990s he had supplied a couple in their 80s with sleeping tablets for a joint suicide. They had struggled to leave their home because of different medical problems.

The case that brought him before the GMC concerned a retired businesswoman who, the GMC found, did not have depression or any other mental illness and was determined to end her life. She did not want to be a burden on her family and had made her wishes quite clear.

Kerr prescribed 30 amobarbital sodium tablets in 1995 with the intention that she could use them to end her life if she chose to do so. In the event she disposed of them, but in 2005, aged 87, she killed herself with an overdose of temazepam, which Kerr had prescribed three days after she failed in a suicide attempt.

For a doctor, or anyone else, assisting a suicide is a specific crime in England and Wales under the Suicide Act, carrying a maximum sentence of 14 years in prison. In Scotland the act does not apply, but helping someone commit suicide risks a prosecution for culpable homicide.

A member of the Scottish parliament, Margo MacDonald, who has Parkinson’s disease, introduced a bill to legalise assisted suicide in December 2010, but it was rejected by 85 votes to 16, with two abstentions. She has pledged to bring forward a fresh bill this year.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2013;346:f1704