Right-to-die advocate keen to lead ethics discourse

October 7, 2005

Bristol University Medical School has embraced one of the toughest dilemmas faced by doctors with the appointment of a professor of ethics who supports a patient's right to choose to die.

Euthanasia - the practice of ending the life of an individual suffering from a terminal illness - remains illegal in this country.

Last week, a British doctor who admitted trying to help a friend suffering from cancer to commit suicide was struck off the medical register.

But Ruud Ter Meulen, a Dutch academic who has been appointed to the chair of ethics in medicine at Bristol, argues that euthanasia is a form of "benevolence".

He said this week: "I argue from the point of view of the uncomfortable and painful position of the patient. If you see the suffering of some people - they are unable to cope and they want a doctor to help them have a dignified end."

He added: "I don't use the term mercy killing. But it is a way of dying with dignity and peace."

Professor Ter Meulen, who is director of the Institute for Bioethics at Maastricht University, has worked as a professor of ethics in The Netherlands for more than 15 years.

The Netherlands became the first country in the world to make euthanasia legal in 2002.

Yet Professor Ter Meulen stressed that although he hoped to prompt doctors working in his new medical school to think through difficult ethical issues such as euthanasia, he would not necessarily battle to change UK law. "You have to take account of cultural values in a country," he said. "I am not saying you must import our system for euthanasia."

As well as initiating debate, Professor Ter Meulen will undertake research and teaching on ethical issues within the medical school, focusing on areas including care of the elderly and the chronically ill.

He said: "The best way to practise medical ethics is within a medical faculty. If you are not linked to a faculty, then you are standing on the sidelines."

Professor Ter Meulen is keen to bring together doctors, philosophers, lawyers, social scientists and any other interested parties to explore moral issues in medicine and biotechnology.

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