The Assisted Dying Bill

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The Assisted Dying Bill passed its second reading in the House of Lords on 18 July without a vote. 

The Bill underwent an emotionally charged 10 hour debate in the Lords with 65 peers speaking for it and 62 against. The Bill now passes to committee stage in the House of Lords for further consideration, likely to happen before Christmas. However the Bill is unlikely to become law imminently because MP's would have to vote on this controversial topic close to the general election in May 2015. 

What is the current law?

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 a term of 14 years in prison. However the law in this area is unclear and the Crown Prosecution Service’s own Policy on Encouraging or Assisting Suicide states that “each case must be assessed on its own facts and on its own merits”[1]

In the face of this uncertainty, a Supreme Court ruling in June 2014 invited Parliament to reconsider the law on assisted dying. The Court rejected an argument that a ban on doctors helping patients to end their lives was incompatible with Human Rights legislation. However, the Court did state that the Court had “constitutional authority” to intervene in the debate – stating that if Parliament did not clarify the rules on assisted suicide then the Court could make a ruling in future applications.  

What do other countries do?

The Assisted Dying Bill, proposed by the former Lord Chancellor Charles Falconer, is similar to the Death with Dignity Act in Oregon, USA. That law has been in force for 17 years and has enabled small numbers of people to request an early death – official statistics quote less than 80 deaths in Oregon in 2013 out of a total 30,000 were as a result of assisted death[2] 

In other countries, such as Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, legislation has been introduced to allow assisted dying. The Commission on Assisted Dying, established and funded by campaigners who have been calling for a change in the law, concluded that there was a “strong case” for allowing assisted suicide in 2012.

What are the proposed changes?

Currently, patients can sign an Advance Decision stating that they refuse life sustaining treatment or appoint a Health and Welfare Attorney who has the right to refuse life sustaining treatment on their behalf (see Blake Morgan’s briefing on "planning ahead in relation to your health and welfare"). However the law does not allow a patient to request an early death. The Assisted Dying Bill would allow doctors to prescribe a lethal dose of medicine to terminally ill patients judged to have less than 6 months to live. Two doctors would have to independently confirm that the patient was terminally ill and had reached their own informed decision to die. 

Crucially, the Bill does not extend the right to request early death to disabled people or those with degenerative disease not deemed to be terminal. There is therefore concern that the Bill will create a two tier system of assisted death and leave those with disabilities with little clarity. As medical science takes huge leaps forward, there are questions to be raised about the ability of doctors to adequately judge life expectancy and whether this is open to abuse. A public policy research organisation called Living and Dying Well has said that the proposed safeguards are “utterly inadequate”[3]. Conversely, Dignity in Dying states that the Bill would allow terminally ill adults to explore all of their choices rather than having checks made after someone dies. [4]

As Lord Falconer himself said “The courts have said repeatedly that the current law does not work and have urged Parliament to construct a workable law. There is a common goal, whichever side of the debate you are on”.

[1] para 47 Policy for Prosecutors in Respect of Cases of Encouraging or Assisting Suicide February 2010. As a result, in the 5 years prior to February 2014, there were 91 cases of assisted suicide referred to the CPS of which only 1 has so far resulted in a successful prosecution and a further 4 have been referred for prosecution for murder or serious assault (