We have long supported attempts to legalise assisted dying, assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia across the UK, for those who have made a clear decision, free from coercion, to end their lives and who are physically unable to do so themselves. In many cases, the person in question will be terminally ill. However, we do not think that there is a strong moral case to limit assistance to terminally ill people alone and ultimately we wish to see reform of the law that would be responsive to the needs of other people who are permanently and incurably suffering.
Humanists defend the right of each individual to live by his or her own personal values, and the freedom to make decisions about his or her own life so long as this does not result in harm to others. Humanists do not share 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, and that interference in the course of nature is unacceptable. We firmly uphold the right to life but we recognise that this right carries with it the right of each individual to make his or her own judgement about whether his or her life should be prolonged in the face of pointless suffering.
Currently, the needs and autonomy of patients are often disregarded. Many people are in fact helped to die by doctors or nurses but without the safeguards that legislation would bring. Compassionate doctors, who follow the wishes of their terminally ill or incurably suffering patients by assisting them to die, risk being charged with assisting suicide or murder. The current system also results in close relatives being faced with the immensely difficult choices of whether, knowing that it is unlawful, to assist a loved one who is begging for help to put an end to their suffering or not to act and hence prolong their suffering. 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. The few terminally ill and suffering people who are able to travel abroad to die often do so before it would be necessary if they did not need to be still able to travel.
Being able to die, with dignity, in a manner of our choosing must be understood to be a fundamental human right – a position supported by the landmark judgment in the Purdy case, where our highest court ruled that European Convention on Human Rights can be invoked in relation to the end of life. Legalising assisted dying would ensure that strict legal safeguards are in place and empower people to make rational choices over their end of life care, free from coercion. The choice of an assisted death should not be instead of palliative care for terminally ill people, but a core part of comprehensive, patient-centred approaches to end of life care.
What are we doing?
In 2013 we became a party to the legal case brought by Jane Nicklinson, widow of Tony, in an attempt to have the law changed.
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.