- One in three Australians will now have access to assisted dying laws
- WA follows Victoria’s lead, with New Zealand set to legalise in 2020 subject to national referendum
- Three more US States – Hawaii, New Jersey and Maine – have also introduced assisted dying legislation in 2019
Western Australia today became the second state in the country to legalise assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally competent adults. It follows the state of Victoria, which changed the law in 2017 and began offering assisted dying to its citizens earlier this year. The law in WA will be implemented in 18 months’ time, at which point a third of Australians will live in states that permit assisted dying.
New Zealand’s End of Life Choice Act was passed in November and will come into force subject to a national referendum on assisted dying in 2020. Canada, the other Commonwealth nation to permit assisted dying, legalised choice at the end of life for terminally and chronically ill citizens nationwide in 2016.
In the UK, supporters of assisted dying have been lobbying parliamentary candidates to support an inquiry on the subject in the new Parliament. Similar inquiries were undertaken in Victoria, Western Australia and New Zealand, allowing for Parliamentarians to fully understand the negative consequences of enforcing a blanket ban on assisted dying.
The news also comes shortly before a survey by the Royal College of General Practitioners is due to close, with GPs being asked what position their professional body should take on the subject of assisted dying. The Royal College of Australian GPs has not campaigned for or against law change in Victoria or Western Australia. Instead it has recognised the range of views amongst its members and supported the inclusion of effective safeguards in legislation. Earlier this year a survey by the Royal College of Physicians led to the College moving from a position of official opposition to assisted dying to one of engaged neutrality. The British Medical Association is due to consult its own members for the first time in its history in early 2020.
Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, said:
“This is great news for the people of Western Australia and will be encouraging news to dying people throughout Australia who are demanding the same choice for themselves. We know that, like in Australia, the vast majority of people in the UK are supportive of a change in the law. We hope the growing number of jurisdictions that have crafted assisted dying laws for their own citizens will reassure our own politicians that assisted dying is the right choice and the safest choice for people in the UK. In the new Parliament we will be urging MPs to support an inquiry into the state of the current law.
“There have been huge developments both in the UK and around the world this year on assisted dying. In the UK, the Royal College of Physicians’ decision to move to a position of neutrality on assisted dying shows that medical opinion in this country is changing and we hope the Royal College of General Practitioners and British Medical Association will both follow their lead in 2020. Meanwhile, Western Australia, Hawaii, New Jersey, Maine and New Zealand have all grasped the nettle and given their own citizens the choice to die on their own terms. Crucially, medical associations around the world have shown that moving to a position of neutrality has allowed them to act in the best interests of doctors and dying people.
“This year we have also seen some of the devastating effects of the blanket ban on assisted dying in this country. Both the cases of Ann Whaley and Mavis Eccleston have shown that the law does not work for dying people, their families or for public servants who must enforce this broken law. Research has shown that 17 people in the UK will die every day without adequate pain relief, with many more experiencing uncontrollable symptoms in their last days and weeks of life. People like Richard Selley, who died at Dignitas in September, have spoken out against laws that deny choice at the end of life. In the new Parliament we are certain that the vast majority of Brits who want a change in the law will ask: If the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand can all pass assisted dying laws, why can’t we?”
Elaine Selley, whose husband Richard died at Dignitas in September, said:
“If we had lived in Western Australia, Richard would have been comforted to know that the choice was available to him. It is galling to think that if we had lived in Perth in Australia rather than Perth in Scotland he might have been able to die at home, with friends and family around him, rather than having to make the journey to Switzerland to exercise control over his own death.”
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The law on assisted dying in the UK
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.
In a House of Commons in a debate in July and at Justice Questions in October, MPs have called on the Government to initiate a call for evidence on the damage being done to dying people, their families and public services.
Mavis Eccleston and Ann Whaley
Dennis Eccleston, a former miner from Staffordshire, was diagnosed with terminal bowel cancer in 2015 at the age of 79. In February 2018, Dennis and his wife of almost 60 years, Mavis Eccleston, attempted to end their own lives. Dennis died two days later in hospital and Mavis, 80, made a full recovery following treatment. Following a trial at Stafford Crown Court, a jury found Mavis not guilty of murder and not guilty of manslaughter on Wednesday 18 September 2019.
Diagnosed with terminal motor neurone disease, Geoffrey Whaley, 80, made the decision to travel to Switzerland for an assisted death accompanied by his wife Ann, 76, in February 2019. Weeks before his scheduled journey, an anonymous call was made to social services, alerting the police of his plans. Geoffrey and Ann were subjected to a police investigation which risked stopping him from travelling and carried the possibility of prosecution for her. On the day of his death, Geoffrey released an open letter to MPs urging them to legalise assisted dying as an option for dying Brits.
The Royal College of General Practitioners has launched a survey of its 53,000 members following an announcement in June 2019.
The College last consulted its members on the issue in 2013. The result, announced in February 2014, was that the College should not change its stance, and as such, its current position is that it is opposed to any change in the law on assisted dying.
The British Medical Association announced in June 2019 that it will survey its 160,000 members on assisted dying for the first time. The BMA is currently opposed to a change in the law on assisted dying. Its policy is decided at its Annual Representative Meeting, which voted on 25th June by 193 votes to 113 in favour of the survey.
The Royal College of Physicians dropped its longstanding opposition to assisted dying in March 2019 following a survey of its 36,000 members.
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. In Western Australia the Voluntary Assisted Dying Bill was recently passed by the state’s Lower House and will now be considered by the Upper House (Legislative Council).
Canada legalised medical aid in dying (MAID) in June 2016. As a result of the Canadian Supreme Court’s judgment in Carter v Canada in February 2015, the Canadian government introduced assisted dying legislation in June 2016.
New Zealand will put an End of Life Choice Bill to a public referendum in 2020 after the legislation passed third reading on Wednesday 13 November 2019.
About 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).
Dignity in Dying does not provide practical assistance or advice in ending life, nor does it provide enquirers with the contact details of organisations who do so.