The law is not working

The law in the UK places an absolute ban on assisting another person to die. Assisting a suicide is an offence under the Suicide Act 1961, punishable with up to 14 years of imprisonment. The Suicide Act is nearly 50 years old and is out of step with public opinion and current morals and values.

 

The law needs to change

Some opponents of a change in the law on assisted dying argue that that the law is fit for purpose.  Evidence shows that this is not the case. The current law forces some terminally ill adults to look for alternatives in order to exercise control over the manner and timing of their deaths when they feel their suffering has become unbearable.

 

Palliative care

 

Dignity in Dying supports the right  for all terminally ill people to have access to excellent palliative care services, regardless of their age, disease, geographical location or any other factor.   However, we know that for some people, good quality palliative care cannot address their concerns about losing autonomy, control and dignity at the end of their lives.

This is not a failure of palliative care; these are person-centred issues, and they are most frequently at the heart of a request to die. It is wrong to see this is an issue of assisted dying OR palliative care. They are not in conflict.   The House of Lords Select Committee on the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill recognised that there is a group of patients whose demand for medically assisted dying will not be deflected by more or better palliative care[2]. The National Council for Palliative care, the British Medical Association and Macmillan have all acknowledged this fact[3].

 

Individuals taking matters into their own hands

 

Dignity in Dying believes that mentally competent, terminally ill adults should be allowed the option of an assisted death, within strict legal safeguards. This would bring an end to the many negative consequences of the status quo on terminally ill people and their loved ones. These negative consequences include:

 

 

 

1) Dignitas deaths

 

  • The Swiss organisation Dignitas, which helps people with incurable illnesses to die, regularly features in the British media.
  • Over 650 British citizens are members of Dignitas.
  • Over 100 British citizens have travelled to Switzerland to have an assisted death since October 2002.
  • This corresponds to an average of 16 British citizens being assisted to die at Dignitas each year.

Negative consequences of the current state of the law:

  • People who travel to Dignitas with the help of their loved ones fear legal consequences for their loved ones upon their return to the UK.
  • The lack of legal certainty around prosecution of those who accompany loved ones to Dignitas leads some terminally ill people to travel to Switzerland all by themselves; and as a consequence often earlier than they would have liked to.
  • People are forced to die in a foreign country, away from their familiar surroundings and, in some cases, without their loved ones.

 

Andy Squires Assisted Dying personal story image

Andy Squires and his brother accompanied their terminally ill mother to Dignitas.

Personal story: Andy Squires and his brother accompanied their mother, who had been suffering for a long time from Huttington’s Disease, to Dignitas

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2) “Mercy killings”

 

  • Under the current law, anybody who ends the life of another can be convicted of murder and receive a life sentence – even if the act is a compassionate response to a dying persons’ request for help to die (a ‘mercy killing’).
  •  Despite the risk of being convicted of murder, a number of people resort to “mercy killing” and often regard this as a final act of love towards a loved one who is suffering and requests help to die.
  •  From 1990/1991 to 2004/2005, Home Office records show a total of 57 suspects of homicide cases that can be described as “mercy killings”[4].
  •  This only represents a small fraction of the real number of cases of “mercy killing”, which often are never discovered.

Negative consequences of the current state of the law:

  • The current situation has very negative effects on the lives of “mercy killers”. These range from imprisonment to long drawn-out trials and public labeling. People who have committed an act of “mercy killing” also often suffer from long-term effects on their mental health, which can lead to self-harm and even to suicide. The Home Office has reported that, of 57 suspects of acts of ‘mercy killing’, 21 have committed suicide[5].
  •  With no clear policy in place, people may claim to have committed a “mercy killing” or assisted a suicide for compassionate reasons, when in fact their motives are more sinister or selfish.

 

Heather Pratten personal story

Heather Pratten helped her son, Nigel, to die

Personal story: You can read the tragic story of how Heather Pratten helped her son Nigel  to die.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3) Violent and botched suicides

 

Some people take matters in their own hands and attempt to commit suicide. This can lead to long drawn-out and painful deaths. Some people will end up in a worse situation than they were previously in if their attempt to commit suicide fails. Research shows that 10% of suicides in England involve a person with a terminal or chronic illness, in 2009 this would have equated to 439 deaths a year. And it’s impossible to know the number of terminally ill people who attempt suicide but fail when trying to control the timing and manner of their death[6].

Negative consequences of the current state of the law:

  • People are forced to die a lonely death in the absence of their loved ones, out of fear of legal consequences for anyone they asked to be present at the time of death.
  • Some people will die a long drawn-out and painful death. Others will fail to commit suicide and possibly end up in a worse situation than before.
  • Because it is illegal for anyone to help another person to die, some people choose to commit suicide while they are still able to do so. This means that these people die earlier than they would like to.
  • Authorities in Oregon are aware of 94 terminally ill people who were prevented from committing violent suicide because the option of assisted dying was available to them. 50 of these people went on to die a natural death[7].

 

Steve King Personal Story

Steve King committed suicide under the fear that his wife would be prosecuted if she accompanied him to Dignitas

Personal story: Read Sheila King’s  account of  how her terminally ill husband, Steve, committed suicide

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4)People refusing food and water

 

  • Some people decide to exercise control over the time and manner of their death by refusing food and water.
  • The refusal of food and water is different from the refusal of artificial nutrition and hydration, which constitutes a form of medical treatment.

Negative consequences of the current state of the law:

  • People who choose to refuse food and water will often die a long and protracted death, when they would rather have an immediate death.

 

George Martin Assisted Dying image personal story

George Martin refused food and water in an attempt to end his suffering at the end of his life

Personal story:  Read Allie King’s account of how her terminally ill father, George Martin, refused food and water in order to end his suffering and campaign against the current law.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

5)Assisted dying practices

 

  • Research has shown that, of all deaths in the UK in 2004, 0.16% were cases of doctors ending life following an explicit request from the patient[8] (voluntary euthanasia).
  • In absolute figures, this means that in 2004, 936 deaths were the consequence of patients receiving assistance in dying from their doctor upon their request. This assistance was given outside any applicable legal framework and without any safeguards.

Negative consequences of the current state of the law:

  • Assisted dying already takes place underground, without any safeguards. This particularly puts vulnerable people at risk.
  • Research suggest that legalisation would reduce the rate of assisted deaths in the UK: research conducted in the United States found that the assisted dying rate in Oregon, where assisted dying has been legal since 1997, is lower than in any other state: 1 in 250 versus 1 in 10007.

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Bazalgette L, Bradley W, and Ousbey J, “The Truth About Suicide”, Demos, 2011. 2. Select Committee: Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill. HL Paper-86. Volume 1 Report. 3. National Council for Hospice and Specialist Palliative Care (now known as the NCPC), http://www.hospicecare.com/Ethics/statements.htm, in 1997: “”universal availability of excellent palliative care services will not and can never eliminate all such rational and persistent requests for euthanasia”.We acknowledge that maintaining a legal prohibition on the practice of euthanasia exacts a high price on some individuals who may feel that their autonomy has been unacceptably compromised.”; British Medical Association, Medical Ethics Today: The BMA’s handbook of ethics and law, 2nd Ed., BMA Publishing GroupMacmillan, 2004; Macmillan Cancer Relief, End of life issues position statement, approved 23 July 2003. 4. Home Office, Homicide victims where the circumstances were described as a mercy killing defined as mercy killing, 2005. 5. http://www.dignityindying.org.uk/news/news.asp?id=196 (1998-2005) 6. Bazalgette L, Bradley W, and Ousbey J, “The Truth About Suicide”, Demos, 2011. 7. C. Seale, “National survey of end-of-life decisions made by UK medical practitioners”, Palliative Medicine 2006; 20: 3 Â? 10. 8. Tolle SW, Tilden VP, Drach LL, Fromme EK, Perrin NA, Hedberg K, “Characteristics and Proportion of Dying Oregonians Who Personally Consider Physician-Assisted Suicide”, JME 2004, 15(2), 111-118.