What is assisted dying?
Assisted dying allows a terminally ill, mentally competent adult to voluntarily choose the timing and manner of their fast approaching death.
In March 2018, Guernsey scheduled a debate on an Assisted Dying law for May. Passing the vote would eventually mean putting a system in place on assisted dying in Guernsey for those who are terminally ill and mentally competent. It’s the first major debate since Parliament voted against a Bill in 2015.
As the debate comes around again, here we look at the key facts, definitions and the current laws around one of the most disputed arguments in our society.
The difference between assisted dying and assisted suicide
Assisted dying and assisted suicide are not the same. There’s a difference between helping someone to die who is terminally ill and helping someone to die who is not.
- Assisted dying allows the terminally ill person to have a choice over the manner and timing of their imminent death
- Assisted suicide enables someone who’s not dying to choose death over life
Different assisted dying models around the world
To date, five countries have legalised what’s known in UK law as euthanasia: the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Colombia and Luxembourg. Germany, Switzerland, one Australian state and six American states allow physician-assisted death.
In the US, “euthanasia” involves the physician ending a patient’s life, whereas “physician-assisted death” or “medical aid in dying” involves a doctor prescribing drugs for a patient to end their own life.
This isn’t the same as the Swiss or Benelux models, which have wider eligibility criteria than terminal illness, where a doctor gives medication directly to the patient.
How does the law in the UK stand on assisted dying?
The Suicide Act 1961 makes it an offence to encourage or assist a suicide or a suicide attempt in England and Wales. Anyone doing so could face up to 14 years in prison.
Assisted dying is defined under euthanasia, which is considered as manslaughter or murder, and is illegal under English law.
In 2015, Parliament decisively voted against a change in the law. The Assisted Dying Bill proposed that the patient would need to be an adult with less than six months to live, mentally competent, informed of the alternatives and making the choice through their own free will.
Doctors would then prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to the terminally ill patient, which they must administer themselves. 118 MPs voted in favour and 330 against the Bill.
What is public opinion in the UK at the moment?
According to the Dignity in Dying campaign, the “vast majority” of the public support a change in the law on assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally competent adults. Support for a change in the law stands at 82% among the general public.
The 2015 Parliament debate, then, where 74% of MPs voted against this bill compared with 72% back in 1997, was largely inconsistent with public opinion. We think that public opinion should be factored into a debate on a topic which involves such a great amount of personal choice.
Doctors, GPs and the medical profession
According to Dignity in Dying, 54% of GPs are supportive or neutral to law change on assisted dying. Many medical professionals, though, have spoken out what the bill could mean for doctors. The British Medical Association, the doctor’s union, opposes all forms of assisted dying.
The main question is what role doctors would play: if the law was to be built around specific medical conditions, then doctors obviously have an inherent part to play in the overall decision.
In February 2018, palliative care professional Dr Iain Lawrie spoke out against assisted dying. For Lawrie, assisted dying shouldn’t be a part of medical practice, as it would send out the message that “it must be a best-interests activity.” It would be for a GP to diagnose the patient’s condition, offer an opinion on its likely outcome and suggest possible treatment options.
Lawrie instead urged that all cases should rest with the courts – “given the gravity of the matter” – and “not with doctors”. There’s clearly a need to get clarity on where responsibility begins and ends if doctors are to be involved in the decision.
Will legislation ever change in the UK?
There are certain key laws which hold up the health service and criminal system in England and Wales, and it’s unlikely that a law on assisted dying would ever be passed swiftly or seamlessly. Unpicking the law would be a lengthy job – these are centuries-old laws heavily influenced by religious views.
It’s an argument that runs deep for many people. There is still thought to be an overlap between suicide and assisted dying, the fear amongst people being that once a decision is made ‘there’s no going back’.
What are the arguments for making assisted dying legal?
- In the UK, 300 dying people are taking their own lives every year
- A step towards legalisation is seen as a way of putting an end to unnecessary suffering
- A popular comparison is to that of putting down pets that are dying, in pain or who won’t recover – why wouldn’t we do the same for humans?
What are the arguments against making assisted dying legal?
- How do you safeguard doctors against culpability?
- Assisted dying is a slippery slope – how do we deem people to be mentally competent, and what’s to stop the law being abused?
- Those who are severely disabled or very old might feel there’s a pressure on them
Campaigns and how to get involved
Take a look at the Dignity in Dying campaign for up to date news on the issue
We’ve also got more Helpful Links, including campaigns and funeral industry news