Assisted dying

The British Humanist Association has long supported attempts to legalise assisted dying for the terminally ill. Humanists defend the right of each individual to live by her/his own personal values, and the freedom to make decisions about her/his own life so long as this does not result in harm to others. Humanists do not share some of the attitudes to death and dying held by some religious believers, in particular that the manner and time of death are for a deity to decide or that interference in the course of nature is unacceptable.

What is the issue?

Currently, the needs and autonomy of patients are often disregarded. Compassionate doctors, who follow the wishes of their terminally ill patients by assisting them to die, risk being charged with assisting suicide or murder. The current system sometimes also results in close relatives being faced with immensely difficult choices: whether to assist a loved one who is begging for help to put an end to their suffering knowing that it is unlawful, or to deny their loved one the death they want. We do not believe that anyone should be put into the position of having to make such choices, or indeed into a position where they believe that they have no other option but personally to end the life of someone they love. Those few terminally ill and suffering people who are able to travel abroad to die, often die before it is necessary because they need to do so at a time when they are still able to travel.

The Roman Catholic Church has traditionally expressed the strongest opposition to assisted dying, but it has been a broad religious lobby, led particularly by the Church of England Bishops in the House of Lords, that has blocked attempts to create a humane and ethical law on assisted dying.

What are we doing?

In 2011 a new Commission on Assisted Dying was established. The BHA was invited to give evidence to the Committee. We gave oral evidence in March, followed by a written submission in April.

In May 2010, the BHA submitted a memorandum to the End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill Committee, which is scrutinising the The ‘End of Life Choices (Scotland)’ Bill in the Scottish Parliament.

In February 2010, we supported calls for an independent inquiry into the law on assisted dying for terminally ill adults, and briefed members of the House of Lord for a debate on the issue, and in March we urged MPs to call for legalisation of assisted dying in the UK.

The Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) has published a prosecuting policy in cases of assisted suicide, listing the criteria that are taken into account when deciding whether or not to prosecute someone who has assisted another individual in ending their life.

This policy was a drawn up in response to a judgement of the Law Lords in the prominent case of Debbie Purdy, a multiple sclerosis suffer who successfully argued in the UK’s highest court that it was her right to know the grounds on which a prosecution may be made against her husband if he assists her at a later date.

The BHA responded to the initial draft policy in 2009, and provided a detailed memorandum, before welcoming the final prosecution guidelines on their release in 2010. However, it is our firm position that the law on assisted dying the UK is in need of extensive reform. We believe that legalisation, with strict safeguards in place, is ethically far preferable than our present law and would be by far the best way to protect vulnerable people.

During the passage of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009, we briefed Parliamentarians on an amendment which would remove the threat of prosecution for those accompanying terminally ill loved ones abroad for an assisted death, in a country where that is legal. However, that amendment did not pass.

In 2006 we supported Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill, which was defeated in the Lords on 12th May 2006.  Ahead of its second reading in the Lords, the BHA published research that revealed the extent of the religious lobby on the Bill, and the scaremongering and misinformation being given out by religious groups about the issues. We continue to lobby government for a change in the law, and will make submissions to government on any future Bills which aim to change the legislation around assisted dying.

What can you do?

The BHA consults with its members on the subjects of assisted dying / assisted suicide / voluntary euthanasia, through our newsletters, web forums and local humanist group discussions.  We welcome your comments on these subjects, which help us to form our campaigns. To date, members have rarely expressed opposition to the legalisation of assisted dying, provided that there are adequate safeguards in place to protect patients, their families and doctors.

You can write to your MP and ask him or her to support moves to legalise assisted dying for the terminally ill.

You can support the BHA by becoming a member.  That helps in itself, and you can help even more by supporting our campaigns  in the ways suggested above.  But campaigns also cost money – quite a lot of money – and we also need financial support.  You can make a donation to the BHA.