Death is something most people don’t want to think about. Some people have good deaths, calm, with no pain, loved, and with achievements to look back on. Others fall ill, losing control of their lives, with no way of ending the pain. Those of us who have witnessed such deaths know the distress of standing by, unable to help a suffering loved one. None of us wants that for ourselves. Yet helping someone in that situation can land you in prison.
Public support for change
There is growing public support for some change in the law. Last year, YouGov carried out a poll to test public opinion on the issue. It explained that:
A proposed new law would allow terminally ill adults the option of legally seeking assistance to end their lives. This would mean being provided with life-ending medication, to take themselves, if two doctors were satisfied they met all of the safeguards. They would need to be of sound mind, be terminally ill and have 6 months or less to live, and a High Court judge would have to be satisfied with their decision.
Eighty percent of people agreed that Parliament should allocate time for this to be discussed, with little disagreement by gender, party, or region. People over 50 were most strongly in support.
They then asked whether they would want their MP to vote in favour of the change. This time three quarters of people agreed.
However, MPs remain nervous about the issue. Although, in polling, 80 percent of both disabled and religious people support change, both groups have powerful lobbies fighting against change.
So although the people clearly want the law changed, Parliament continues to drag its feet.
Other countries have faced the issue
Around the world, many countries have passed laws allowing people, in specific circumstances, and with safeguards and limits, to choose to end their lives, with medical assistance when necessary. Usually this applies only to people who have an incurable terminal medical condition which will lead to death in a relatively short time. Assisted dying is now legal in seven European countries, eleven US States, five States in Australia, New Zealand, and Canada. Proposals are being debated in Jersey, Ireland, Isle of Man, and Germany. The Scottish Parliament are now completing a public consultation on the issue, and legislation is expected.
The law is unsatisfactory and uncertain
Test cases have asked the Supreme Court to overrule the present law in the UK. But the Court has said that, while the present situation is unsatisfactory, it is a matter which only the elected Parliament can decide.
The law itself is clear: it is a crime to assist anyone to die, whatever the circumstances. But in practice the police may decide not to take action, and the Director of Public Prosecutions may decide that, in a particular case, a prosecution is not in the public interest. So nobody can tell in advance what will happen, and the dying person knows that they are asking their helper to risk prison for an act of kindness. As a result, every year 300 people kill themselves without help, and many more people continue to live, sometimes for years, with intolerable pain, leading to certain death at an arbitrary point in the future. This is not how we treat our pets.
Attempts to change the law have failed
There have been two recent attempts to raise the issue in Parliament. In 2021, Baroness Meacher (Chair of the campaigning group Dignity in Dying) launched a Private Member’s Bill on Assisted Dying in the House of Lords. Her Bill would have legalised assisted dying (as defined in the poll above) subject to strict safeguards and alongside access to high quality palliative care. 51,000 people signed a letter to the Prime Minister supporting the Bill, and it passed its Second Reading in the Lords unopposed. But other Peers then tabled over 200 amendments, some raising proper concerns about drafting and safeguards, but many clearly designed to kill the Bill, and as a result, it has not progressed.
The former Scottish Secretary Lord Forsyth tried a different approach. He tabled an amendment to the government’s Health and Care Bill, which was going through the Lords. The amendment would have required the Government to present a draft assisted dying bill to Parliament within a year and make it subject to a free vote. The government would not take sides in the debate, and MPs could properly consider the issue as a matter of individual conscience.
Forsyth was clear that his amendment was not supporting assisted dying. He was arguing that, on a matter where the Supreme Court has said that the law is unsatisfactory and there is clearly widespread public opinion in favour of change, Parliament should consider the issue seriously. A draft Bill would enable them to examine all the arguments and clarify the law one way or the other.
On 16 March the House of Lords rejected Lord Forsyth’s amendment, by 179 votes to 145, despite support from several senior Peers, including a former Archbishop of Canterbury, former Cabinet Ministers, and doctors.
The latest attempt at change comes now from the Commons Health and Social Care Committee. They are carrying out an inquiry into the issue, and have launched a public consultation, which closes on 20 January. They are inviting views from individuals and organisations. They have also produced a simple 6 point online survey which asks:
1. Suicide and attempted suicide are not crimes in England and Wales. However, it is a crime for a person to encourage or assist the suicide of another person. Euthanasia (healthcare professionals administering lethal drugs) is also illegal. Do you agree/disagree/not sure with the law?
2. Please tell us why you have responded as you have set out above.
3. Which of the following factors are most important to you when considering the issue? Please select up to three.
- Impact on healthcare professionals
- Personal autonomy
- Personal dignity
- Reducing suffering
- Risk of coercion of vulnerable groups
- Risk of devaluing lives of specific groups
- Sanctity of life
4. If you have responded ‘other’ to the previous question, please tell us which other factors are most important to you when considering the issue.
5. Do you think any of the following would be helpful? Tick all that apply
- Citizens’ assembly (a representative group of people who are selected at random from the population to learn about and make recommendations in relation to a particular issue)
- Further independent research
- Referendum (when a question is decided by putting it to a public vote)
- Other (please give more details in the text box below)
6. If you responded ‘other’ to the previous question, please tell us what other resources would be helpful in the debate. [Word limit: 50 words]
Dignity in Dying, who campaign for reform of the law, have published their own commentary on the consultation.
A way forward?
This is a highly sensitive issue, and no major party or government wants to take the risk of promoting a Bill, for fear of vociferous lobbies and potential press hostility. So deadlock has remained, and despite what a clear majority of people, and especially those most directly affected, want, nothing will change. This consultation is an opportunity to make it clear to our lawmakers that they should not be afraid to grasp the nettle.
Death comes to all of us, and any one of us may find ourselves approaching the end, desperately wanting to end the pain, and with no one to help. Once again, our Parliament has failed us. You can respond to the consultation online here.