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Where are we with the assisted dying debate in the UK?

Assisted dying is naturally a controversial subject.

On the one hand, people would like to be able to help those suffering great pain with only more pain to endure in the future by enabling them to carry out their wish to end that suffering. And to do so without fear of prosecution.

On the other, there are principled objections to taking a life, and the fear that the ability to assist dying could be misused.

The debate has been continuing for many years. It’s come to the forefront again as well-known campaigner and advocate for the vulnerable, Dame Esther Rantzen, who is living with stage four cancer, is giving her very vocal support to the push to make assisted dying legal in England. Her battle and the campaign for change have been highlighted across the UK media, and a petition has received many signatures.

What is the law today?

The law as it stands treats those who help a person to die as a criminal, although it is not illegal to attempt to take one’s own life.

The Campaign for Assisted Dying, which advocates for the legalisation of assisted dying reports that:

‘In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, assisting a suicide is a crime. Those convicted could face up to 14 years in prison. There is no specific crime of assisting a suicide in Scotland. But it is possible that helping a person to die could lead to prosecution for culpable homicide.’

The NHS give more detail about the differences between euthanasia and assisted suicide, and the penalties for being involved:

  • Euthanasia: the act of deliberately ending a person’s life to relieve suffering. For example, it could be considered euthanasia if a doctor deliberately gave a patient with a terminal illness a drug they do not otherwise need, such as an overdose of sedatives or muscle relaxant, with the sole aim of ending their life. Depending on the circumstances, euthanasia is regarded as either manslaughter or murder. The maximum penalty is life imprisonment
  • Assisted suicide: the act of deliberately assisting another person to kill themselves. If a relative of a person with a terminal illness obtained strong sedatives, knowing the person intended to use them to kill themselves, the relative may be considered to be assisting suicide. Assisted suicide is illegal under the terms of the Suicide Act (1961) and is punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment. Trying to kill yourself is not a criminal act.

The medical profession in England seems to have shifted stance in recent years, from a huge nervousness about the possibilities to a more neutral stance, both from doctors and nurses.

Is change likely?

There does appear to be some likelihood that change could come, but it’s a long way from here. The Parliamentary Health and Social Care Committee has recently published a report on the subject, and while not making any recommendations, has pointed to countries where assisted dying or euthanasia is legal. This has not been a smooth process though, and doubts have been raised about whether it is working appropriately in some countries. In Canada for example there are worries that the law is moving too wide and too fast.

The Government is making no commitments, but says it does want to encourage debate.

Dame Esther is hopeful that a change in the law will come, but probably not in her lifetime.

Photo by Anna Jiménez Calaf on Unsplash

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