VOLUME 35, NO. 21, June 1, 1999

INTERNETIONAL NEWS: MD's acquittal for assisted death sparks U.K. debate

By Harvey McConnell

LONDON - The trial and acquittal of a doctor accused of assisting the death of a terminally ill patient has ignited a national debate about palliative care.

A jury took only 67 minutes, following a 27-day trial, to acquit family practitioner Dr. David Moor of murder charges brought by the Crown Prosecution Service.

The charge was that the dosage of diamorphine administered by Dr. Moor killed his patient George Liddell, 85, who was suffering from cancer.

Dr. Michael Wilkes, chairman of the British Medical Association's medical ethics committee, pointed out that euthanasia remains against the law. "The jury found that Dr. Moor's intention was to relieve suffering. The trial should therefore not be seen as breaking new ground on the issue of euthanasia."

The public, if radio talk shows are a guide, fully supported the jury verdict.

Dr. Moor said after his acquittal: "All I tried to do in treating Mr. Liddell was to relieve his agony, his distress and his suffering. This has always been my approach in treating my patients with care and compassion."

Dr. Moor has always been honest about his actions and he had admitted to journalists that he had administered high diamorphine doses to more than 300 terminally ill patients during his career as a family practitioner.

During the whole procedure Dr. Moor has commanded complete support from his patients and from members of Liddell's family. More than 30,000 people signed a petition by the Friends of Dr. Moor support group.

However, the presiding judge was obviously so miffed by the jury verdict that he said Dr. Moor should pay one-third of the costs of his defence.

Dr. Moor was supported by the Medical Defense Union although it advised family doctors that his acquittal was not a green light for euthanasia. An official said euthanasia remains illegal but the law allows physicians to provide treatment for the terminally ill to relieve pain and suffering even if it has the unintended effect of hastening death.

Dr. Moor's actions highlighted the so-called double effect: physicians administer analgesia to relieve suffering and with the knowledge that a sufficient high dosage will result in death.

Dr. Michael Irwin, chairman of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, speculated the jury verdict was tantamount to "society' s wink at euthanasia."

The anti-euthanasia group Alert was alarmed by the verdict. Dr. Peggy Norris, its chairwoman, said she was not surprised at the decision "but I am appalled."

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