Assisted dying as a choice for terminally ill adults in Ireland is set to undergo detailed examination by a Special Oireachtas Committee, Ireland’s Justice Committee recommended this week (Wednesday 22 July 2021).
The announcement comes months after an assisted dying bill (the Dying with Dignity Bill 2020) was introduced to the Dáil in October. A majority of TDs spoke in favour of law change and voted to progress the bill to pre-legislative scrutiny by the Justice Committee.
The Justice Committee this week announced that it had received over 1400 public submissions relating to the bill, and while it will not progress to committee stage, the submissions will be passed onto a Special Committee for consideration. A Special Committee will also examine how robust legislation can be developed to protect citizens while providing choice and control to those eligible to make a request for assisted dying.
Three jurisdictions across the UK and Ireland are due to debate prospective assisted dying legislation this year, with a bill introduced in the House of Lords by Dignity in Dying Chair Baroness Meacher, a bill introduced in Holyrood by Liam McArthur MSP and a citizen’s jury in Jersey recommending law change on the island, with an in principle debate at the States Assembly scheduled for September. Data on the impact of the assisted dying ban in England and Wales is also due to be published in the autumn, after the former Health Secretary Matt Hancock expressed concern at its potential effect on suicides by terminally ill Brits at home and abroad.
Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, said:
“Ireland has taken great strides in recent years to provide its citizens with freedom of choice throughout their lives, and it is only right that this should extend to the end of life. As in the UK, it is a question of when, not if, we will see safe, compassionate assisted dying laws become a reality.
“Momentum for change is building, with three jurisdictions across the UK and Ireland due to debate prospective legislation this year. Parliamentarians are increasingly recognising what the public have long known – that current end-of-life options do not provide sufficient choice or protection to dying people, their loved ones or healthcare professionals and that reform is urgently needed. True choice and control at the end of life is now the hallmark of compassionate, progressive societies the world over, and the UK is now poised to join their ranks.”
Notes to Editor:
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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.
Assisted dying is also prohibited across the British Crown Dependencies. The Government of Jersey, a British crown dependency, commissioned a citizen’s jury on assisted dying which last month recommended a change in the law to allow assisted dying as a choice for the terminally ill and unbearably suffering. The full recommendations will be debated in the States Assembly later this year.
Assisted Dying Scotland Bill
Liam McArthur lodged the Assisted Dying Scotland Members Bill proposal with the Non Government Bill Unit (NGBU) of the Scottish Parliament on 21 June 2021.
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 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: https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/2592
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.
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), Tasmania (March 2021) and South Australia (June 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.
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.