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Assisted dying bill introduced in UK

Baroness Meacher, who tabled the bill in the House of Lords

On Wednesday 26 May 2021, a new Assisted Dying Bill has been introduced in the House of Lords. It is the first time a private member’s bill on the topic has been discussed in Westminster for more than five years. The legislation represents an important milestone in the campaign to legalise assisted dying.

The bill

The bill is modelled on legislation that has been in place in Oregon, USA for over 23 years, since adopted by 10 other American states, three Australian states and New Zealand.

The bill would legalise assisted dying as a choice for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months of life. Two independent doctors and a High Court judge would have to assess each request. If granted it would enable a terminally ill person to die in a manner, time and place of their choosing.

The Bill would not help those with incurable medical conditions, such as Tony Nicklinson. He suffered from locked-in-syndrome and fought a right-to-die case to change the law. 88% of British adults support such a right, according to a 2019 poll of My Death-My Decision.

UK’s laws on assisted dying now

Assisted dying is prohibited in England and Wales under the Suicide Act (1961), and in Northern Ireland under the Criminal Justice Act (1966) which states that anyone who “encourages or assists a suicide” is liable to 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.

What came before

The Bill has been tabled by Baroness Meacher, who is the Chair of Dignity in Dying. It was selected seventh in the House of Lords ballot on Thursday 13 May 2021. On Wednesday 26 May 2021 it is formally introduced with its first reading in the House of Lords.

The legislation is based on a bill tabled by Lord Falconer in 2014, which was supported by Peers at Second Reading. Two opposition amendments were defeated by large margins at Committee Stage, however the parliamentary session ended before it could progress further. Rob Marris MP introduced a similar bill in 2015 which was defeated in the Commons. The functioning of the current law on assisted dying was the subject of a Backbench Business Committee Debate in July 2019 and a Westminster Hall debate in January 2020, at which a majority of MPs speaking called for a review of present legislation.

Last month, Health Secretary announced to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Choice at the End of Life that he had requested data from the Office for National Statistics on suicides by terminally ill people and assisted deaths in Switzerland of British nationals. This followed comments Mr Hancock made in the House of Commons in November and January this year highlighting the Government’s role in obtaining a fuller understanding of the functioning of current assisted dying laws and stressing the importance of suicide prevention and patient safety measures.

Dignity in Dying UK

Dignity in Dying campaigns for greater choice, control and access to services at the end of life. It campaigns within the law to change the law, to allow assisted dying as an option for terminally ill, mentally competent adults with six months or less to live. This is supported by 84% of the public (Populus, 2019).

Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, said:

“The Westminster Parliament will now look again at legalising assisted dying, and rightly so; the ban causes heartache and injustice for so many dying people and their families across the UK. Peers have been in the majority supportive of law change and MPs are increasingly following suit, recognising that the blanket ban on assisted dying simply does not work. It is time for the UK to grasp this nettle. We hope sufficient time is given to this bill, brought by Dignity in Dying’s Chair, Baroness Meacher, to progress through all of its stages in the Lords so that this issue receives the attention it deserves.”

“With lockdowns and travel bans making Dignitas virtually impossible for the past year, terminally ill Brits have been forced to suffer against their wishes or take matters into their own hands. Meanwhile, in recent months New Zealand, Spain and states across the US and Australia have passed assisted dying laws; Germany and Austria are considering legislation; closer to home a Bill in Ireland is making its way through the Dáil and Jersey is holding a citizens’ jury on the topic. In Scotland, two parties made manifesto pledges on assisted dying and legislation is due to be introduced in Holyrood later this year.”

“Emerging from the pandemic, there has never been a better time for reform – for our parliament to pass pragmatic, safe and compassionate assisted dying laws for the people who really need them.”

Humanists UK

Humanists UK campaigns for legal assisted dying for both those with terminal and incurable illnesses. It has welcomed the Bill as an important step forward but urged lawmakers not to overlook the incurably suffering.

Humanists UK’s Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson said: 

‘Nobody should be forced to suffer in pain or indignity against their will. But under current laws, many people find themselves in such circumstances but are denied the right to die. We strongly endorse the principles of this Bill as an important first step towards securing a kind, fair, and compassionate law for the terminally ill. However, we urge lawmakers to recognise that incurably suffering people need the same degree of control over when to end their lives. People deserve equal respect and dignity, irrespective of whether they have six months to live or years of endless suffering.’

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