Assisted dying: what are the laws in UK and what changes are proposed?

by 24britishtvMarch 28, 2024, 7 p.m. 16
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A new bill to legalise assisted dying in Scotland has been published at Holyrood by the Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur, in a fresh attempt by supporters to get the measure enacted for the first time in the UK.

What are the laws on assisted dying?

Assisting or encouraging another person to take their own life is an offence in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with a maximum prison sentence of 14 years. In Scotland, helping someone to kill themselves could lead to prosecution for crimes such as murder, culpable homicide or other offences.

What is being proposed across the UK?

McArthur’s bill, which will offer terminally ill adults assistance to end their lives, is expected to be scrutinised by MSPs on Holyrood’s health committee and could be voted on by MSPs at its first stage later this year.

Proposals to legalise assisted dying for people who are terminally ill or have an incurable condition with unbearable suffering in Jersey – one of the UK’s three self-governing crown dependencies – will be debated in the states assembly in May, with a vote on whether to proceed with drawing up legislation.

An assisted-dying bill is also passing through the Isle of Man’s parliament, with further debate scheduled for April.

What is happening at Westminster?

In February, a report by MPs on the health and social care committee warned that approaches to this “difficult, sensitive and yet crucial” issue could soon diverge across the UK, and called on the Westminster government to be “actively involved in discussions”.

Keir Starmer has said he is “committed” to allowing a vote on decriminalising assisted dying should Labour win the general election. Downing Street has previously said it would be up to parliament to decide whether to debate assisted dying again. The last vote was held in 2015, when the Commons decided against changing the law by 330 votes to 118.

Does the bill reflect a change in public mood?

McArthur said cross-party support for his bill indicated that “politicians are catching up with where the public has been for some time”, citing polling for Dignity in Dying Scotland that found 78% of respondents supported legalisation.

There have been growing calls for a change in the law, with interventions from celebrities such as Esther Rantzen, who has described the UK government’s law on assisted dying as a “mess”, as well as individuals like Paola Marra, who spoke to the Guardian last week before she ended her life at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland after suffering with terminal stage 4 bowel cancer since 2021.

The British Medical Association and the Royal College of Physicians in recent years ended their opposition to assisted dying and instead adopted neutral positions, with increasing numbers of doctors now endorsing the measure.

Another poll carried out by Opinium Research on behalf of Dignity in Dying this month, canvassing the views of more than 10,000 people across the UK, found that 75% of respondents would support making it lawful for dying adults to access assisted dying in the UK.

What are the concerns about assisted dying?

Some faith groups, disability rights campaigners and medical professionals continue to raise significant concerns about the effect of a law change on vulnerable, sick and dying people who fear becoming a financial or emotional burden on their loved ones. They prefer to characterise the process as “assisted suicide” and some have criticised the Holyrood bill for “euphemistic language”.

Healthcare professionals at the organisation Our Duty of Care, the British Islamic Medical Association, the Better Way campaign, Disability Equality Scotland and many others expressed their opposition to McArthur’s billafter its publication.

Dr Gillian Wright, a former palliative care registrar who is part of the Our Duty of Care campaign, spoke out against the proposals: “The primary danger of assisted suicide is that individual lives are devalued by society because they are ill, disabled, confused, or that their contribution to society is perceived to be minimal.

“We are encouraged that ordinary doctors and nurses from across Scotland have joined together to send a definite message to MSPs. We do understand that there is suffering at the end of life, but this should drive us as a society not to provide assisted suicide, but instead well-funded, accessible, high-quality palliative care for all.”

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