- Date set as BMA prepares to debate dropping opposition to law change
- Holyrood to begin consultation on assisted dying bill
- Jersey Government to debate citizen’s jury recommendations for legalisation
A Lords Private Member’s Bill on assisted dying will receive its Second Reading on Friday 22 October 2021, marking the first debate on prospective legislation in Westminster for six years. The Assisted Dying Bill, which was formally introduced by Dignity in Dying’s Chair Baroness Meacher in May, would legalise assisted dying as a choice for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months of life – a change supported by 84% of the British public.
Two independent doctors and a High Court judge must be satisfied that an individual making a request is over 18, terminally ill with six months or less to live and fully mentally competent, and that they are making a clear, settled decision of their own volition. A prescription for life-ending medication would then be granted, which the individual could take at a time and place of their choosing.
The legislation is based on a bill tabled by Lord Falconer in 2014, which was supported by Peers at Second Reading. Two opposition amendments were defeated by large margins at Committee Stage, however the Bill was not able to progress further due to the end of the session prior to the 2015 General Election. The bill is modelled on legislation that has been in place in Oregon, USA for over 23 years, since adopted by nine other American states plus the District of Columbia, four Australian states and New Zealand.
This comes as the British Medical Association (BMA) prepares to debate dropping its opposition to law change on assisted dying in favour of neutrality at its Annual Representative Meeting next week (Tuesday 14 September 2021), after the largest ever survey of doctors on the issue last year found a majority disagreed with the BMA’s current stance (just 33% agreed). The survey also found that half of doctors were personally in favour of law change on assisted dying as a choice for terminally ill patients.
The Royal College of Physicians adopted a neutral position on assisted dying in 2019 after a membership survey found a similar range of views (just 43.4% voted for the RCP to maintain opposition). The Royal College of Nursing has been neutral on the issue since 2009.
In Holyrood, a public consultation is due to begin on an assisted dying bill proposed by Liam McArthur MSP in June 2021, and in Jersey a citizen’s jury has overwhelmingly recommended law change on the island, with a Government debate due later this year.
Baroness Meacher, Chair of Dignity in Dying, said:
“My private member’s bill on assisted dying is modest in its scope and yet its potential to transform all our lives and deaths for the better is colossal. It strongly supports access to the best possible end-of-life care alongside this option, which would enable terminally ill, mentally competent people whose suffering is beyond palliation to die on their own terms, should they wish. It would also provide invaluable peace of mind and control to countless more who may never avail themselves of this option but would be comforted by the simple fact of its existence. This Bill is an insurance policy against intolerable suffering which benefits us all.”
Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, said:
“The Westminster Parliament will now look again at legalising assisted dying, and rightly so; the current law thwarts open discussion between dying people, their doctors, friends and family, forcing people to suffer unbearably against their wishes or contemplate sedation, starvation, suicide or Switzerland. Peers have been in the majority supportive of law change and MPs are increasingly following suit, recognising that the blanket ban on assisted dying simply does not work.
“Safeguarded laws which enable choice alongside high quality palliative care are in place in an ever-growing number of states and nations around the world. Momentum for change is building and there has never been a better time for reform – for our parliament to pass pragmatic, safe and compassionate assisted dying laws for the people who really need them.”
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Notes to Editor
Dignity in Dying
Dignity in Dying campaigns for greater choice, control and access to services at the end of life. It campaigns within the law to change the law, to allow assisted dying as an option for terminally ill, mentally competent adults with six months or less to live – something supported by 84% of the public (Populus, 2019).
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 Bill
Baroness Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill was selected seventh in the House of Lords private members ballot in May and received its First Reading on Wednesday 26th May 2021. It will receive its Second Reading on Friday 22 October 2021. The full text can be found here: https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/2875. It is based on a bill introduced by Lord Falconer in 2014. Rob Marris MP introduced a similar bill in 2015 which was defeated in the Commons.
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.
In April 2021, the then 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 2021 and January 2021 highlighting the Government’s role in obtaining a fuller understanding of the functioning of current assisted dying laws and stressing the importance of suicide prevention and patient safety measures.
Assisted Dying Scotland Bill
Liam McArthur, Lib Dem MSP for Orkney, lodged the ‘Assisted Dying Scotland’ Members Bill proposal with the Non-Government Bill Unit (NGBU) of the Scottish Parliament in June 2021. A Consultation on the contents of the bill is planned to take place in the autumn.
The proposal seeks to introduce the right to choose an assisted death for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in Scotland.
Jersey’s citizen’s jury on assisted dying
Since March 2021 a citizen’s jury in Jersey has met to hear expert and personal testimony on assisted dying and to consider a change in the law on the island. The jury published its initial recommendations in June, calling for islanders who are terminally ill and unbearably suffering to be able to request medical assistance to end their own life.
Over the coming months the Government of Jersey will develop policy proposals and the jury will publish a final report before a debate in the States Assembly by the end of this year.
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 (legislation approved April 2021).
In Australia, assisted dying is a legal choice for terminally ill citizens in Victoria (June 2019), Western Australia, Tasmania and South Australia (legislation approved June 2021). A bill is also being debated in Queensland.
New Zealand is set to implement an assisted dying law allowing this option for terminally ill, mentally competent citizens by November 2021, following a public referendum on the End of Life Choice Act in October 2020.
Spain passed a law allowing assisted dying in March 2021 to be implemented later this year.
In Ireland, assisted dying is set to be examined by a Special Oireachtas Committee, as recommended by the Justice Committee in July 2021.
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, including for foreign nationals, 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 Annual Representative Meeting on 14 September 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.