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First reading of Baroness Meacher’s Private Members’ Bill on assisted dying

  • Assisted Dying: Private Member’s Bill First Reading due in Lords Wednesday 26 May 2021

  • Sets in motion first debate on prospective legislation for more than five years

A private member’s bill on assisted dying will receive its First Reading in the House of Lords tomorrow, Wednesday 26 May 2021, paving the way for a debate on prospective legislation – the first in Westminster for more than five years. Tomorrow Dignity in Dying’s Chair, Baroness Meacher, will formally introduce the bill to the House of Lords, with a full Second Reading debate anticipated later this year, likely in the autumn.

The bill 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 would have to assess each request, which if granted would enable a terminally ill person to die in a manner, 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 parliamentary session ended before it could progress further. The bill is modelled on legislation that has been in place in Oregon, USA for over 23 years, since adopted by 10 other American states, three Australian states and New Zealand.

Last month the Health Secretary announced to a cross-party 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 on assisted deaths in Switzerland of British nationals, and highlighted the importance of an evidence-based debate. This followed comments Mr Hancock made in the House of Commons in November and January this year, stating 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. MPs debated the functioning of the current law on assisted dying in a Backbench Business Committee Debate in July 2019 and in a Westminster Hall debate in January 2020, where a majority of MPs who spoke called for a review of the blanket ban on assisted dying.

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. This option would enable terminally ill, mentally competent people whose suffering is beyond the reach of palliative care to die well and on their own terms, should they choose it. And it would also provide invaluable comfort and control to countless more who may never avail themselves of this option but would be comforted by the simple fact of its existence. It is an insurance policy against intolerable suffering, and that benefits us all.

“Meanwhile, 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. It is time for Parliament to act and thus improve the ability of all of us to lead happier lives in the knowledge that we will have some control over how we die, as is already available to an increasing number of citizens the world over.”

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

“The Westminster Parliament will now look again at legalising assisted dying, and rightly so; the ban causes heartache and injustice for so many dying people and their families across the UK. 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. It is time for the UK to grasp this nettle. We hope sufficient time is given to this bill, brought by Dignity in Dying’s Chair, Baroness Meacher, to progress through all of its stages in the Lords so that this issue receives the attention it deserves.

“With lockdowns and travel bans making Dignitas virtually impossible for the past year, terminally ill Brits have been forced to suffer against their wishes or take matters into their own hands. Meanwhile, in recent months New Zealand, Spain and states across the US and Australia have passed assisted dying laws; Germany and Austria are considering legislation; closer to home a Bill in Ireland is making its way through the Dáil and Jersey is holding a citizens’ jury on the topic. In Scotland, two parties made manifesto pledges on assisted dying and legislation is due to be introduced in Holyrood later this year.

“Emerging from the pandemic, 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.”

***ENDS***

For more information or interview requests, please contact Ellie Ball at ellie.ball@dignityindying.org.uk or 07725 433 025.

Notes to Editor

The Assisted Dying Bill

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

This bill is based on a bill 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.

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.

Last month, 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 and stressing the importance of suicide prevention and patient safety measures.

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).

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 assembly on assisted dying which will report recommendations back to the States Assembly for debate later this year.

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). A bill in South Australia was approved by the Upper House in May 2021 and will be debated by the Lower House later this year. A bill is due to be introduced in Queensland in late May 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.