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Lords publish on assisted dying bill

Today, April 4th 2005, a House of Lords Committee today published its report on a Bill seeking to legalise assistance with suicide and voluntary euthanasia for terminally-ill people who are mentally competent and suffering unbearably.

There is insufficient time remaining for the Bill to be considered adequately in this session of Parliament, so the Committee has presented a thorough and balanced report on the subject of assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia based on wide-ranging evidence. The Committee heard from more than 140 witnesses in four countries, considered over 60 formal written submissions and received over 14,000 letters and e-mails.

The Committee recommends that its report should be debated early in the next Parliamentary session and that, if a new bill is introduced along similar lines, a Committee of the whole House should examine it. The Committee identified a number of key issues which, it hopes, those who draft any future bill will address. These include:

The need for any future bill to distinguish clearly between assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia in order to give the House the opportunity to consider them separately and to decide, if it should favour a change in the law, whether it would be appropriate to legalise only one or both of them.

The need for qualifying conditions for assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia to be set which reflect the realities of clinical practice as regards the prognosis of terminal illness and which define a patient’s suffering in as objective a manner as possible – eg ‘unrelievable’ rather than ‘unbearable’ suffering.

The Chairman of the Committee, Lord Mackay of Clashfern said:

“Ending or helping to end someone’s life, albeit with their consent, is an awesome issue, and opinion within the Committee has been divided. We have explored the underlying ethical principles involved and the practical implications of any change in the law on intentional killing and assistance with suicide. And we have looked at the experience of other countries where legislation of this nature is in force.”

“Our Report is intended to inform future debate and to improve public understanding of this complex and emotive subject.”

1. The Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill (ADTI) Bill was introduced into the House of Lords by Lord Joffe. It follows a similar bill by Lord Joffe – the Patient (Assisted Dying) Bill – which was debated in the House in June 2003 but did not proceed further. The ADTI Bill was remitted, following a formal Second Reading on 10 March 2004, to a Select Committee under the chairmanship of Lord Mackay of Clashfern. The other members were:

  • The Earl of Arran
  • Lord Carlile of Berriew
  • Baroness Finlay of Llandaff
  • Baroness Hayman
  • Baroness Jay of Paddington
  • Lord Joffe
  • Lord McColl of Dulwich
  • Lord Patel
  • The Bishop of St Albans
  • Lord Taverne
  • Baroness Thomas of Walliswood
  • Lord Turnberg

2. The Committee heard from more than 140 witnesses in the UK and abroad. The Committee visited three countries – US (State of Oregon), The Netherlands and Switzerland – where laws permitting either assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia are in force in order to assess whether the experience in these places was relevant to the UK situation.

In Oregon (USA) only assisted suicide is legal (accounting for 0.14 % of all deaths), while in The Netherlands both actions have been legalised (accounting for 2.7% of all deaths). In Switzerland assisted suicide is legal, though not in most cases as a medical procedure, provided that the motive is not self-serving.