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'Old dementia patients are better off dead'

health and fitness Updated: Sep 20, 2008 11:08 IST
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One of Britain's most influential experts on medical ethics has ignited a controversy by recommending euthanasia for old people suffering from dementia, saying such patients are a burden on the health service.

Baroness Warnock, considered an intellectual giant though criticised for her extreme views on various subjects, has said that for the old and sick who are contemplating dying, "there is nothing wrong with feeling you ought to do so".

Her remarks in an interview with Church of Scotland's magazine Life and Work were the first public suggestion from any expert with close links to the government that euthanasia should not only be legal but that elderly people should be pressed towards death.

Lady Warnock said: "If you are demented, you are wasting people's lives, your family's lives, and you are wasting the resources of the National Health Service (NHS)."

Her remarks were condemned by Alzheimer's charities. Some 700,000 in Britain have dementia and this is expected to double over the next 30 years.

Rebecca Wood, chief executive of the Alzheimer's Research Trust, told Daily Mail: "The solution to our dementia crisis is not euthanasia; the answer is more research so we can find new treatments, preventions and a cure."

Neil Hunt, of the Alzheimer's Society, said: "With the right care, a person can have a good quality of life very late into dementia. To suggest that people with dementia should not be entitled to that quality of life or that they should feel that they have some sort of duty to kill themselves is nothing short of barbaric."

Euthanasia is a crime in England. But the 2005 Mental Capacity Act endorsed the right of people to have a 'living will' in which they can order doctors to kill them if they become too ill to speak for themselves.

Patients are killed by the withdrawal of water tubes, which are considered to be treatment. Doctors who ignore such living wills - or ignore the instructions of someone appointed by a patient to make medical decisions for them - commit a crime and can face prison.

This is not the first time the baroness has spawned a controversy. She first proposed euthanasia for older patients four years ago. She became an open supporter of euthanasia after her ill husband, a vice-chancellor of Oxford University, was helped to die by his doctor in 1995.

An Oxford philosophy don who was headmistress of Girton College in Cambridge, Baroness Warnock spent eight years on the Independent Broadcasting Authority deciding who could have licences to run radio stations.

Heading an inquiry into special education, she ran into a controversy by concluding that disabled and mentally challenged children should go to ordinary schools. Critics said she wrecked both ordinary and special schools with her decision.

She came into the limelight again with her Warnock Report of 1984 into human fertilisation which was the landmark that allowed the first experiments on human embryos.