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Assisted Dying Bill introduced to Scottish Parliament

  • First time Holyrood has considered legislation on assisted dying since 2015
  • Recent polling finds 86% Scots want Scottish Parliament to examine issue; 75% want this done within two years
  • Scottish bill comes as House of Lords due to debate legislation in autumn; Health Secretary commissions data on impact of assisted dying ban in England and Wales; and citizen’s jury on topic underway in Jersey

Today, Monday 21st June, Liam McArthur MSP for Orkney will lodge proposals in the Scottish Parliament for a new Members Bill which seeks to change the law on assisted dying in Scotland, paving the way for the first debate on prospective legislation in Holyrood for more than five years.

Supported by Dignity in Dying, the bill would legalise assisted dying as a choice for terminally ill, mentally competent adults, a change supported by 87% of the Scottish public. Recent polling has shown that 86% of Scots want the Scottish Parliament to examine the issue and 75% want this done within two years.

The bill is launched in Holyrood after a private member’s bill on assisted dying was introduced to the House of Lords last month, with a second reading due in autumn. In April the Health Secretary commissioned research from the Office for National Statistics on the impact of the blanket ban on assisted dying on terminally ill people who end their own lives at home and in Switzerland.

A citizen’s jury on the topic has been taking place in Jersey since March 2021, with initial recommendations due to be published tomorrow (Tuesday 22 June 2021). Also due out tomorrow is polling on assisted dying and end of life care commissioned by Dignity in Dying in Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man. As British Crown Dependencies, these jurisdictions have the ability to legislate on assisted dying independently from the UK.

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

“Scotland’s new Assisted Dying Bill is a watershed moment, not only for dying Scots but for the whole of the UK. Soon, terminally ill Scots could have the choice and control that has been denied to them for far too long, bringing Scotland in line with the growing number of liberal, progressive societies around the world that pride themselves on safe, compassionate assisted dying laws. This sends a strong signal to Westminster that it is time to re-examine the blanket ban on assisted dying in England and Wales, which for 60 years has caused unbearable suffering for British families.

“With bills in Holyrood and Westminster, momentum for change is building right across the British Isles. Parliamentarians are starting to realise what the public has long known; that the current choices available to dying people are not sufficient, and that the time has come to pass safeguarded assisted dying laws for the people who really need them.”


Notes to Editors

For more information, polling tables or interview requests, please contact Ellie Ball or 07725 433 025.

Scottish polling conducted by Populus 2019 and The Diffley Partnership 2021.

The UK’s laws on assisted dying

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.

The Government of Jersey, a British crown dependency, is currently conducting a citizen’s jury on assisted dying which will tomorrow (Tuesday 22 June 2021) report recommendations to the States Assembly for debate later this year.

Assisted Dying Scotland Bill

Liam McArthur is lodging the Assisted Dying Scotland Members Bill proposal with the Non Government Bill Unit (NGBU) of the Scottish Parliament today.

A Consultation on the contents of the bill is planned to take place in autumn.

The proposal seeks to introduce the right to an assisted death for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in Scotland. 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.

House of Lords Private Members Assisted Dying Bill

Baroness Meacher’s assisted dying bill was selected seventh in the House of Lords private members ballot in May 2021, meaning it is highly likely to be given time for a full Second Reading debate later this year. Its First Reading took place on Wednesday 26th May 2021, where Baroness Meacher introduced the Bill to the House of Lords. Dates for future Readings will be announced in due course.

This bill is based on one introduced by Lord Falconer in 2014, the full text of which can be found here:

Rob Marris MP introduced a similar bill in 2015 which was defeated in the Commons.

In April 2021, the 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, the need for a fair and evidence-based debate, and the importance of suicide prevention and patient safety measures.

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.

The impact of the UK’s ban on assisted dying

Before the coronavirus pandemic, on average one Briton every week travelled to Switzerland for a legal assisted death – a process which costs £10,000 on average and often causes people to die prematurely because of the need to retain the physical strength to make the journey. Anyone who assists in the arrangement of an assisted death overseas or accompanies someone to Switzerland for this purpose could be prosecuted for ‘assisting a suicide’ in England and Wales. Polling has found that over half (53%) of Brits would consider travelling abroad for an assisted death if terminally ill and two-thirds (66%) would consider breaking the law to help a loved one do so, yet only a quarter (25%) would be able to afford it.

A further 300 terminally ill people end their own life in England every year on average, and 17 people every day suffer as they die even with access to the best end of life care.

International developments

In the US, assisted dying as an option for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months of life is legal in 11 jurisdictions: Oregon (1997), Washington, Vermont, Montana, the District of Columbia, California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey, Maine and New Mexico (April 2021).

In Australia, assisted dying is a legal choice for terminally ill citizens in Victoria (June 2019), Western Australia (December 2019) and Tasmania (March 2021).

New Zealand is set to legalise assisted dying as a choice for terminally ill, mentally competent citizens by November 2021, following a public referendum on the End of Life Choice Act in October 2020.

In Ireland, an assisted dying bill is currently undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny after a majority of TDs voted to progress the Dying with Dignity Bill 2020 in October.

Spain passed a law allowing assisted dying in March 2021 to be implemented later this year.

Austria’s Supreme Court ruled in December 2020 that its blanket ban on assisted dying is unconstitutional and the practice will be decriminalised in limited circumstances by 2022.

Germany began considering potential assisted dying legalisation in January 2021 after its Constitutional Court struck down the ban in 2020.

Canada introduced assisted dying legislation in 2016.

Assisted dying is permitted in Switzerland, and broader right-to-die laws are in place in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.

Healthcare professionals

The largest ever poll of British doctors on assisted dying, conducted by the British Medical Association, results of which were released in October 2020, found overwhelming support for a change to the BMA’s current stance of opposition to an assisted dying law (61%), and that half of doctors personally support a change in the law (50%). The BMA’s current position – opposed to a change in the law – is due to de debated at their next Annual Representative Meeting in 2021.

In September 2020, Eminent GPs Prof Aneez Esmail and Sir Sam Everington launched a legal challenge to the Royal College of GPs alongside the Good Law Project and Dignity in Dying over RCGP Council’s decision to maintain opposition to assisted dying despite its own survey showing a dramatic shift in GP opinion.

In March 2019, the Royal College of Physicians dropped its longstanding opposition to assisted dying in favour of neutrality following a member survey.