On the 60th anniversary of the ban on assisted dying in England and Wales, Islington woman Emily Kenway, 35, from Finsbury Park, has today (Tuesday 3 August 2021) called on MPs to reform the “cruel, outdated” law which she believes forced her mother to suffer a traumatic death against her wishes last year. Ms Kenway’s plea comes 60 years after the implementation of the Suicide Act, which decriminalised ending one’s own life while making any form of assistance, including assisted dying, a crime punishable by up to 14 years in prison. This autumn the House of Lords prepares to debate prospective assisted dying legislation for the first time in more than five years, with Holyrood also beginning consultation on a similar bill in Scotland.
Ms Kenway became convinced of the need to change the law to enable assisted dying as a choice for terminally ill, mentally competent adults after witnessing her mother’s death from lymphoma in September 2020.
Ms Kenway said:
“I was forced to watch helplessly as the fiercely independent woman who single-handedly raised me and my sister and who carved a successful career for herself in the male-dominated word of law, effectively disintegrated before my eyes. She endured physical suffering as well as the psychological torment that came from having no control whatsoever over her body, life or death.
“On my mum’s final day she was effectively drowning; gasping for air, unable to talk, in a state of utter panic. This happened even with palliative drugs and support. Current options are simply not enough.
“It would have given my mum such comfort, reassurance and peace of mind to know she had the option to control her end, whether or not she would have ultimately chosen an assisted death. This is a matter of personal choice. We are denying people the right to die as they have lived: on their own terms.”
On the 60th anniversary of the assisted dying ban in England and Wales, Ms Kenway, who leads Dignity in Dying’s Hackney & Islington group, has called on MPs in the area to recognise the suffering inflicted on local people by the assisted dying ban and to pledge their support for a change in the law to enable dying people greater choice and control at the end of life.
Ms Kenway added, “I hope my own MP, Jeremy Corbyn, will meet with me with an open mind and ask himself whether the current law is working for his constituents. I believe, as do families across Hackney and Islington, that it is not.
“The assisted dying ban has remained unchanged for 60 years while society has moved on. The vast majority of the public – 84% – agree that it’s time for a safe, compassionate assisted dying law for the UK. Today I call on MPs to catch up.”
Ms Kenway calls for change alongside fellow Londoner David Peace, 72 from Westminster, who has terminal motor neurone disease and feels his only option to achieve a peaceful death is to travel to Switzerland, where assisted dying is legal. This process can cost upwards of £10,000, take months to arrange, requires individuals to retain the physical strength to travel and carries a risk of prosecution for anyone assisting or accompanying them.
Speaking to BBC London News today, David said:
“As of today I cannot safely speak, eat, drink or swallow. I communicate via text-to-speech software on my tablet. I syringe liquid nutrition into my stomach via an external pipe. And every day and night I choke on saliva and mucus in my throat. At any point I might not pull through that awful choking experience.
“I have two options. One, to face the gradual, unstoppable paralysis of the whole of me, the increasing discomfort and helplessness with no known end date. Or, the other is to do what I plan to do: to agree a date in Switzerland, to travel there, and to know that while I am unconscious my heart will stop.”
Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, the UK’s leading campaign for a change in the law on assisted dying, said:
“In the year assisted dying was banned in England and Wales, the Berlin Wall went up, the first human travelled to space, the Beatles’ first album was released and Doctor Who was born. Racial discrimination was not prohibited by law, homosexuality was still illegal and women were unable to secure a legal abortion. Society has moved on, and yet the laws and culture governing how we die remain in the dark ages.
“The ban on assisted dying does not provide sufficient choice or protection to dying people, exacerbating their suffering; it criminalises compassion, forcing loved ones to contemplate breaking the law; and it prevents healthcare professionals from providing the full range of end-of-life options their patients want and deserve.
“As Westminster prepares to debate prospective assisted dying legislation for the first time in more than five years, it is clear that the time has come for the UK to join the ever-growing number of compassionate, progressive societies around the world that offer true choice, control and protection to their dying citizens.”
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.
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. Second Reading is expected in the autumn.
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.
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.
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.