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Assisted Dying: A Trainee Barrister’s Perspective

Natasha Vas - Trainee Barrister
Natasha Vas is currently studying on the Bar Professional Training Course, and is a strong supporter of Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill.

Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill will receive its Second Reading in the House of Lords on Friday 18th of July. On that day the principles of the Bill will be debated and, subject to opponents, voted on. Campaigners for the amendment of law believe that the decision will give a strong chance for assisted dying to become legalised. 

Legal cases

Assisted dying involves the conflicts between the concept of autonomy on one side and regard for the “sanctity of life” and to preserve it on the other. The subject has been one of much public debate over the years and has stemmed from cases such as; Pretty v UK [2001] UKHL 61, [2002] 1 AC, R v (Purdy) v DPP [2009] UKHL 45 and R v (Nicklinson) v Ministry of Justice and others [2013] EWCA Civ 961. The debate does not just consider law alone but also covers ethical, moral and religious concerns. For such a topical issue we as the public should therefore consider all the facts and aspects for and against assisted dying before forming our own opinion. In this article I will seek to persuade the arguments in support of assisted dying.

What is Assisted Dying

Before looking at the arguments for assisted dying we should firstly consider what it actually is. The assistance only applies to terminally ill, mentally competent adults and requires the dying patient, after meeting strict legal safeguards, to self-administer life-ending medication. This is different to assisted suicide which allows assistance to die for chronically ill and disabled people who are not dying. Assisted suicide is permitted in Switzerland.

The argument for assisted dying is led by the autonomist view that one should have a right to choose for their body, and therefore what right does Parliament have to deny a person who wishes to die. Campaigners for the amendment believe that a person should be able to die with dignity and that an element of compassion should be shown to the terminally ill. After all it is considered humane and compassionate to put down the pets we love when they suffer, so why should we not grant such empathy to those we love diagnosed with a terminal illness.

The law is not working

Under the current law of the 1961 Suicide Act, people still face 14 years imprisonment for helping someone to take their own life. However, in 2010 the Director of Public Prosecutions has issued guidelines stating that a person “acting out of compassion” was unlikely to be charged. However, supporters still wish for the law to be clarified.

Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill

The proposed amendment on clarification of the law has come from Lord Falconer of Thoroton, the Labour former Lord Chancellor, who has introduced an Assisted Dying Bill which would be legalised in “strictly defined circumstances”. It allows two doctors to prescribe a lethal drugs dose to those aged 18 and over who have been diagnosed with a terminal illness and have less than six months to live. In doing so they would have to prove they have the mental capacity to make a voluntary and informed choice about their wish to die, which has not been influenced by others.

Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill will receive its Second Reading in the House of Lords on Friday 18th of July. On that day the principles of the Bill will be debated and, subject to opponents, voted on.

Assisted Dying in Oregon

The Bill is based on the present law in Oregon, where assisted dying has been legalised for 16 years. The recent 2013 annual report showed that:

  • 122 people requested life-ending medication in 2013
  • 51 of those people did not take the medication as many of them took comfort in knowing the option was there
  • As in previous years, the three most frequently mentioned end-of-life concerns were: loss of autonomy (93%), decreasing ability to participate in activities that made life enjoyable (88.7%), and loss of dignity (73.2%).

The present law in Oregon is therefore proof that if an amendment is made in the UK then it can work as long as it is regulated sufficiently.

Religious Support

The main religious stance on this is that “the sanctity of life” should be preserved and that no one in effect should be able to “play God” by assisting a person to die. But what about the principle “love thy neighbour as ourselves”? A rule that we should always treat others as we would treat ourselves. This concept is adopted by the Inter-Faith Leaders for Dignity in Dying (IFDiD) group, in support of the amendment and who argue that when a dying person is suffering intolerably everything must be done to help.

To conclude, there are strong legal, ethical and religious arguments in support of the amendment. There is proof from the Oregon law that society can handle the regulation of life-ending treatment for the terminally ill without there being any abuse of the system. By making the amendment it will not replace palliative care, but simply give a terminally ill patient the option to control the manner and timing of their death and to avoid going through the weeks of unnecessary suffering. The Bill’s main objective is to give a terminally ill person the “choice” to die with dignity and give them comfort in knowing they have that choice.