In a letter published in today’s Daily Telegraph (Monday 29 June), the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Archbishop of Westminster and the Chief Rabbi express their opposition to Lord Falconer’s amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill. This amendment would bring the law on travelling abroad to die in line with public opinion and current prosecuting policy, and introduce upfront safeguards to protect against abuse. Commenting, Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying said:
“Within safeguards to protect the vulnerable, Dignity in Dying believes that people have the right to make important life decisions for themselves.
“The position adopted by the Archbishops and the Chief Rabbi, is not based upon the realities of the problem Lord Falconer’s amendment aims to address, but is rather a tactical position based on a religious objection to assisted dying for the terminally ill. Their opposition is immutable regardless of the scale of the problem or the evidence presented.
“Lord Falconer’s amendment does not legalise assisted dying in Britain – this is an issue that we believe Parliament should consider separately. What it does do is deal with a specific legal anomaly, where there is a disconnection between what the law says and prosecuting policy.
“At least 115 Britons have travelled abroad to have an assisted death in a country where it is legal, and many more look set to follow them. This is despite the current law which threatens anybody who accompanies them with prosecution and imprisonment of up to 14 years. This law causes real distress to those contemplating travelling abroad to die and their loved ones, and in reality does very little to protect against abuse.
“Blanket enforcement of the law would be counterproductive, forcing people to travel abroad alone to die. Going abroad alone to die is not a crime, and we cannot regulate foreign assisted dying clinics. What we can do is to safeguard the process so that people know in advance whether their actions will lead to prosecution or not. This is a principle of UK law. Lord Falconer’s amendment achieves this by introducing upfront safeguards which state that immunity from prosecution only applies to those that accompany a terminally ill adult, who is competent to make the decision and has set out their wishes in a declaration witnessed by an independent person. The current situation in which an investigation takes place after the event, and in which the criteria for prosecution are not known, does little to protect somebody who has already died.
“Everybody should be able to access good quality end-of-life care, but this in itself cannot address all of the suffering that the dying process can cause. Therefore, whilst essential, improved access to good quality end-of-life care is not a solution to this problem.
“Opponents of change should clearly state whether prosecutions should be brought in all instances. If not, and they think that there are certain situations when somebody shouldn’t be prosecuted, they should state what these are, as Lord Falconer has done. We hope that Peers will take this opportunity to amend the law so that it is clearly understood and respected by the vast majority of the public who support choice at the end of life.”
Notes to editors:
Amendment tabled by the Rt Hon the Lord Falconer:
Insert the following new Clause-
“Acts not capable of encouraging or assisting suicide
(1) An act by an individual (“D”) is not to be treated as capable of encouraging or assisting the suicide or attempted suicide of another adult (“T”) if-
(a) the act is done solely or principally for the purpose of enabling or assisting T to travel to a country or territory in which assisted dying is lawful;
(b) prior to the act, two registered medical practitioners, independent of each other, have certified that they are of the opinion in good faith that T is terminally ill and has the capacity to make the declaration under subsection (2); and
(c) prior to the act, T has made a declaration under subsection (2).
(2) A declaration by T is made under this subsection if the declaration-
(a) is made freely in writing and is signed by T (or is otherwise recorded and authenticated if T is incapable of signing it),
(b) states that T-
(i) has read or been informed of the contents of the certificates under subsection (1)(b), and
(ii) has decided to travel to a country or territory falling within subsection (1)(a) for the purpose of obtaining assistance in dying, and
(c) is witnessed by an independent witness chosen by T.
(3) “Independent witness” means a person who is not-
(a) likely to obtain any benefit from the death of T; or
(b) a close relative or friend of T; or
(c) involved in caring for T.
(4) D is not to be treated as having done an act capable of encouraging or assisting the suicide or attempted suicide of T by virtue of being with T when, in a country or territory falling within subsection (1)(a), T takes steps (including steps taken with the assistance of D) to commit suicide by lawful means.”
The Rt Hon the Baroness Jay of Paddington
The Lord Lester QC
The Lord Low
Coroners and Justice Bill, relevant clauses:
Suicide (Clauses 49 to 51)
These clauses amend the Suicide Act 1961 with the aim of modernising and simplifying the law without changing its scope. This is in order make it clear that it is illegal to encourage suicide via the internet.
Dignity in Dying supports the Government’s efforts to better protect young and vulnerable people who may be encouraged to commit suicide by others, regardless of whether this is done via the internet or via other means. However, while we welcome these amendments on the condition of proper legislative scrutiny, we are extremely concerned that these amendments fail to address a wider problem with the law, which is that at present (and as proposed) the law fails to distinguish between those who assist and/or encouraging suicide and those who assist the death of a terminally ill, mentally competent adult who feels their suffering has become unbearable.
About Dignity in Dying:
– Dignity in Dying campaigns for greater choice, control and access to services at the end of life. It advocates providing terminally ill adults with the option of an assisted death, within strict legal safeguards, and for universal access to high quality end-of-life care.
– Dignity in Dying has over 100,000 supporters and receives its funding entirely from donations from the public.
– Opinion polls consistently show that at least 80% of the UK population supports a change in the law on assisted dying.
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