Rising numbers of assisted suicides, coroners turning a blind eye: Study

At least 10% of suicides in England are by someone with a chronic or terminal illness, found researchers who tried to obtain information on the subject from local health authorities.

Coroners told them that people were increasingly killing themselves at a younger age, rather than waiting until they were in severe pain in their 80s or 90s. And 2 of 15 coroners interviewed also indicated they deliberately avoided probing into possible cases of assisted suicide - which remains illegal in Britain – “often for fear of causing problems for the friends and family left behind”.

One retired coroner admitted, “There have been many cases where I had suspicions, but I would not see it as my specific job to delve into it. If I had no option then I would, but you might say I didn’t want to know.” Another said, “If it was obvious, I would have to inform the police, as assisting suicide is a criminal offence…Normally it is the case that someone has informed their partner they want to end their pain or suffering. When a relative tells me this I try not to push them as to whether they were therefore aware the person was going to kill themselves.” The report called, “The Truth About Suicide” added that such comments amounted to “evidence that coroners sometimes turn a blind eye to suspicions over assisted suicides”.

In 2009-10, 19 cases of assisted suicide were reported to Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions. No action has yet been taken on any of them. The report adds that, “the actual number of assisted suicide cases is likely to be higher than official records suggest.”

The core focus of the report was suicide among people with chronic or terminal illness, and not assisted suicide itself. The authors said there was a dearth of information on the subject - only 29 or 147 NHS primary care trusts could provide data.

Louise Bazalgette, the lead author, who works for the Commission on Assisted Dying and is a researcher at Demos, and Professor Jonathan Waxman of Imperial College London, explained that coroners were not required to include details of the deceased's medical history as part of the inquest. But she said their research indicated at least 400 people with chronic or terminal illness committed suicide every year in England.

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