What is assisted suicide?

The Terms of Debate

Some people think euthanasia – the termination of someone’s life for their own good – or assisted suicide – helping people to take their own life – should be legal.

The term ‘assisted dying’ has no meaning in law.  It is currently being used as a euphemism for supplying lethal drugs to people who have been diagnosed as terminally ill in order that those drugs might be used by them in order to take their own lives.  In law that is assisting suicide, which is prohibited under Section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961. While suicide itself was decriminalised in 1961, Section 2 made it unlawful to encourage or assist the suicide of another person.  

The situation is slightly different in Scotland, where there is no equivalent of Section 2 of the 1961 Suicide Act.  In Scottish law assisting suicide is governed by the common law relating to homicide and could attract a charge of either murder or culpable homicide.  The law in Northern Ireland is to all intents and purposes the same as the law in England and Wales.

How does the existing law work?

The existing law holds penalties in reserve that are sufficient to make anyone contemplating assisting another person’s suicide think very carefully before doing so. But it also has discretion not to prosecute where the evidence is clear that assistance had been given only reluctantly, for genuinely compassionate reasons and without any malicious intent. As a result cases of assisting suicide are very rare in the UK and, thanks to the law’s deterrent, they are usually those that do not call for prosecution and they are not prosecuted. That deterrent would disappear under an ‘assisted dying’ law.  A person with malicious intent would have nothing to fear from pressuring another to seek legalised assisted suicide.

What is proposed by the advocates of assisted suicide?

There has long been a campaign in the UK for euthanasia and assisted suicide to be legalised. In 2006 the campaign group the Voluntary Euthanasia Society changed its name to ‘Dignity in Dying’, and since then has restricted its campaigning to assisted suicide only. The group’s current proposal is for the right to assisted suicide in cases where an individual has a prognosis of six months or less to live, is in sound mind and not coerced. The approval or two doctors and a judge would be required.

What do the public and doctors think?

Opinion polls say that a majority of the public would like to see ‘assisted dying’ legalised. But these polls are often sponsored by ‘assisted dying’ pressure groups and worded in such a way as to lead unwary respondents to give the desired answers. It is equally possible to show that the public have serious concerns about assisted suicide – including polls showing that support falls to below 50 per cent among people who have heard the main arguments against it. 

A few years ago the Mackay Select Committee, which was examining this subject in depth, invited members of the public to write in with their views.  Among over 12,000 respondents, opinion as to whether the law should be changed was almost exactly evenly divided. This reflects the fact that many people – probably roughly equal numbers on either side – have strong views about assisted suicide, while the majority of the public do not have an informed view at all. 

The evidence suggests that the more people understand what assisted suicide is, and what the alternatives to it are, the more they oppose a change in the law. This also applies to medical professionals. 90 per cent of doctors who specialise in palliative care, the branch of medicine that specialises in treatment and care of terminally ill people, say they would not participate in ‘assisted dying’.  A majority of other clinicians with experience of treating terminally ill patients, such as GPs and geriatricians, are also opposed.  A recent opinion survey of its members by the BMA found that a majority of doctors would be unwilling to participate in ‘assisted dying’.

See posts below for further reading on the meaning of assisted suicide and public and professional opinion.

Related Posts

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