Intended for healthcare professionals


GP is disciplined for willingness to help friend commit suicide

BMJ 2005; 331 doi: (Published 29 September 2005) Cite this as: BMJ 2005;331:717
  1. Clare Dyer, legal correspondent
  1. BMJ

    A retired GP and campaigner for the legalisation of voluntary euthanasia who agreed to help a terminally ill friend commit suicide was unfit to practice, the General Medical Council decided this week.

    Michael Irwin, 74, was facing a strong possibility that he would be struck off the medical register as the BMJ went to press this week.

    A GMC panel decided on Tuesday that his fitness to practise was impaired and told him that he had abused his position as a doctor.

    The panel criticised Dr Irwin for stockpiling temazepam tablets and for “an act of deception” and a criminal offence in writing prescriptions for the drug in his own name, intending to use it to help his friend die.

    Dr Irwin's case was referred to the GMC after he was given a police caution for possession with intent to supply a class C drug. He said he kept a supply of temazepam for his own use to relieve jet lag, but the panel found the numbers of pills “excessive.”

    A former chairman of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, Dr Irwin travelled to the Isle of Man after agreeing to help a fellow euthanasia campaigner, Patrick Kneen, who was dying of prostate cancer.

    But by the time Dr Irwin arrived his friend was too ill to take the pills. His own doctor put him on a diamorphine drip, and he died a few days later in a coma.

    Dr Irwin, 74, told the panel that he knew of several doctors with “twinning” arrangements with fellow doctors to help each other commit suicide if a painful death threatened. He said he was twinned with a retired doctor in Glasgow, and he accused doctors of “double standards” if they refused to do the same for a friend or long term patient who is terminally ill and suffering.

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    Dr Michael Irwin


    In a statement to the GMC he said: “I believe passionately that in this apparently enlightened 21st century, terminally ill patients should have the right to obtain medical assistance to die, if this is their wish: to be able to pick a time for their death, preferably in their own familiar home environment.

    “Although our British society is in principle just, I strongly believe that the existing law on assisted suicide is unjust and that sometimes a compassionate physician has a greater duty to a patient or a close friend than his or her duty to the state.”

    Dr Irwin, who was medical director of the United Nations in New York before he retired 15 years ago, represented himself at the two day GMC hearing, which he welcomed as a focus for renewed debate over the issue of doctor assisted suicide.

    A poll last month by the UK polling organisation YouGov found huge popular support for the legalisation of doctor assisted suicide, with 86% of respondents agreeing with the statement that people who are terminally ill “should have the right to decide when they want to die and to ask for medical assistance to help them.”

    Doctor assisted suicide is legal in the US state of Oregon and in the Netherlands and Belgium and has been decriminalised in Switzerland.

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