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Irish assisted dying bill: speakers overwhelmingly support reform in Dáil debate last night

  • New Zealand prepares for world’s first national referendum on assisted dying in a fortnight, after a bill was passed by its Parliament last year
  • International developments come as top doctor and others call for UK inquiry into blanket ban on assisted dying, with pandemic closing down already limited options such as Dignitas

Cross-party TDs in the Dáil last night overwhelmingly backed a change in the law on assisted dying, with two-thirds speaking in favour of the Dying with Dignity Bill proposed by Gino Kenny TD. TDs will vote on Wednesday whether to allow the Bill to progress to pre-legislative scrutiny or to establish a new Oireachtas Joint Committee to examine the proposals and report back within a year.

Several TDs raised powerful personal testimony of constituents who have suffered at the hands of the ban on assisted dying, including Vicky Phelan, a cancer screening campaigner now living with terminal cervical cancer, whose words were read out by Alan Kenny TD:

“Imagine that you are dying from an incurable cancer. You are still relatively young, with young children. You do not want to die but you know that, barring a miracle, this going to happen… You know that people suffering from the same cancer and died before you endured a lot of pain in their final weeks. Indeed you have sat with some of these patients in their final weeks and you have watched them and their loved ones suffer unnecessarily while they waited for their last breath…

“Now imagine that there is another way, imagine that you can choose to control the circumstances of your inevitable death, and imagine that by virtue of this Bill you are allowed to die gently, at home, surrounded by your family and friends, when your time is nearing its end.

“I do not have to imagine it. This is what this Dying with Dignity Bill would do for me and my family. I do not want to die; I am not choosing between living and dying. My cancer is incurable, the option of living will no longer be available to me in the not too distant future. I just want the choice to control the circumstances of my death, much as I have made decisions about my life.”

Meanwhile New Zealand is preparing to hold the world’s first national referendum on assisted dying later this month, after its Parliament passed an assisted dying Bill last year. With soaring public support, it is likely to pass, and New Zealand may follow in the footsteps of two Australian states, 10 jurisdictions across the US and all of Canada in introducing assisted dying legislation which enables terminally ill, mentally competent adults the choice to die on their own terms, subject to strict safeguards.

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

“While the rest of the world moves on, the UK is lagging shamefully behind. Terminally ill people and their loved ones are bearing the brunt of our inaction and the pandemic is exacerbating their suffering even further. We have heard from a son whose terminally ill mother threw herself off a tall building because she was unable to get to Switzerland due to the ever-changing travel restrictions, local lockdowns and inter-country quarantines. We have also been contacted by a healthcare professional with advanced cancer who is determined to get to Dignitas but is travelling alone for fear of incriminating their loved ones, and may have to spend their final days isolating in a foreign hotel room following last week’s announcement that Switzerland will now quarantine UK arrivals. The ban on assisted dying does not offer protection – it merely drives the practice underground and overseas, with disastrous consequences for British families.

“There is a growing clamour from across society for an urgent review of our cruel, outdated laws. Cross-party Parliamentarians, Police and Crime Commissioners, interfaith leaders and senior figures in the medical profession, including most recently Emeritus Medical Director of Public Health England Paul Cosford, all recognise that the ban on assisted dying is simply not working. COVID-19 has highlighted and exacerbated longstanding problems with death and dying in this country, including the woeful lack of meaningful choice and control. We must address these problems now in the form of an inquiry – not in spite of the pandemic, but because of it.”

 

*ENDS*

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

Notes to Editor:

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).

International developments
Last night TDs in Ireland’s Dáil debated a Dying with Dignity Bill, which would enable terminally ill, mentally competent citizens to request the option of assisted dying. Two-thirds of speakers (eight of 12) spoke in favour of change, and a vote will be held next Wednesday to determine whether it progresses to pre-legislative scrutiny or whether a new Oireachtas Joint Committee is established to examine the proposals and report back within a year.

Assisted dying as an option for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months of life is legal in ten US jurisdictions: Oregon (1997), Washington, Vermont, Montana, the District of Columbia, California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey and Maine (June 2019).
Victoria became the first Australian state to legalise assisted dying for terminally ill people in June 2019. Western Australia voted to legalise a similar bill in December 2019. The health committee of the Government of Queensland published a report in March 2020 recommending that legislation enabling terminally ill citizens the option of assisted dying be introduced, the result of a year-long investigation.
New Zealand will put an End of Life Choice Bill to a public referendum in October, after legislation passed third reading in November 2019.

Assisted dying proposals in the British Isles and Crown Dependencies
A Westminster Hall debate on assisted dying took place on 23 January 2020, in which a majority of speakers backed growing calls from across society for an inquiry into the UK’s current laws on assisted dying. The functioning and impact of the current law was debated at a backbench business committee debate in July 2019. Proposals for assisted dying legislation were last debated in the Commons in September 2015.

The Government of Jersey announced in February 2020 that it would launch a Citizen’s Jury on assisted dying, which will give recommendations to the States Assembly ahead of a debate at the end of this year. In 2019 the Government of Jersey announced that it would undertake detailed research into the views of residents, overseas developments and potential legislation.

The Isle of Man’s Parliament, Tynwald, debated assisted dying at its January sitting on 22 January 2020. It last debated legislation in 2015.
The Legislative Assembly of the Falkland Islands voted in favour of two motions on assisted dying in July 2018 (that terminally ill residents should have the right to die at a time and place of their choosing, and that should legislation be introduced in the UK, the Falkland Islands would consider adopting it).

The States of Guernsey last debated assisted dying proposals in May 2018.

Healthcare professionals
The Royal College of GPs announced on 21 February 2020 that it will maintain its opposition to assisted dying, despite a dramatic shift in views from its 2013 poll. Eminent GPs Prof Aneez Esmail and Sir Sam Everington last week launched a legal challenge to the RCGP alongside the Good Law Project and Dignity in Dying over RCGP Council’s decision. New medeConnect polling finds that majority of GPs also disagree with RCGP’s decision to remain opposed given the range of views expressed in RCGP’s membership survey.

The British Medical Association conducted its first ever membership survey on assisted dying in February 2020, the results of which are yet to be released. Its current position (opposed to a change in the law) is also due to de debated at their next Annual Representative Meeting in 2021.

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