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Assisted dying

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 we wish to see reform of the law that would be responsive to the needs of other people who are permanently and incurably suffering.

In recent years we have intervened in support of Tony and Jane Nicklinson’s and Paul Lamb’s attempts to overhaul the law on assisted dying for the terminally ill and incurably suffering by taking human rights cases through the courts, as well as supported parliamentary attempts to legalise assisted dying for the terminally ill.

In depth

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 the 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.

It is important that there are strong safeguards in any assisted dying law. But the international evidence from countries where assisted dying is legal shows that safeguards can be effective, and recent assisted dying bills in the UK have had strong safeguards written into them.

What we’re doing

Jane Nicklinson (right) pictured with her late husband, Tony. Photo credit: Jane Nicklinson.

Jane Nicklinson (right) pictured with her late husband, Tony. Photo credit: Jane Nicklinson.

We were the only organisation to intervene in support of Tony and Jane Nicklinson and Paul Lamb’s challenges to the illegality of assisted dying in the UK.

Initially Tony, who had locked-in syndrome after being paralysed in an accident and only being able to move some muscles in his face, argued at the High Court that his right to private life was disrupted by the fact that he could not be assisted to die. However, after the High Court ruled against him in the summer of 2012, Tony died. As a consequence, Tony’s wife Jane took up the case at the Court of Appeal, arguing that her right to family life was disrupted by the fact that her husband was denied an assisted death. Paul Lamb, who also has locked-in syndrome, also became a claimant on the same grounds as Tony, while Humanists UK intervened in support of Tony, Jane and Paul. At the Supreme Court Humanists UK was supported by witness statements from humanist philosophers Professor Simon Blackburn, Professor A C Grayling, Professor John Harris, and Professor Richard Norman, as well as the pathologist Professor John Lee and Sir Terry Pratchett.

The cases were rejected by the Court of Appeal in 2013, the Supreme Court in 2014, and the European Court of Human Rights in 2015. However, in dismissing the cases, a majority of Supreme Court judges indicated their willingness to consider issuing a declaration of incompatibility between UK law and the European Convention on Human Rights’ right to private/family life; but as the issue is such a high profile public ethical issue, a majority also ruled that it was right to Parliament to first of all attempt to resolve the issues at hand. This decision was echoed by the European Court.

The judges took this approach in part because they were aware that at the time the House of Lords was considering a private member’s bill, tabled by Lord Falconer, that proposed to legalise assisted dying for terminally ill individuals with less than six months to live (but not incurably suffering individuals like Tony and Paul).

However, while the bill passed through the ‘2nd reading’ stage of debate in summer 2014, it made no further progress before the 2015 general election as the Government refused to schedule enough time for it to be fully debated.

Since the general election, two further assisted dying bills have been tabled. In the House of Commons, Rob Marris MP’s bill was debated in September 2015, and lost its second reading vote – meaning it too will progress no further. Similarly, MSPs voted against a Scottish bill in May. Meanwhile, Lord Falconer has retabled his bill in the House of Lords, but again the Government has indicated that it will not schedule sufficient time for it to progress before the end of the parliamentary session. This means that any progress on the law around assisted dying before 2020 will probably have to come through the courts.

We have continued to work on this issue regardless, for instance with individuals such as Simon Binner and Jeffrey Spector, who have used their personal suffering to highlight the injustice of the illegality of assisted dying.

Earlier work on assisted dying

In 2011 a new Commission on Assisted Dying was established, as a way of preparing for Lord Falconer’s bill. Humanists UK was invited to give evidence to the Committee. We gave oral evidence in March, followed by a written submission in April.

In May 2010, Humanists UK 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 Lords 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.

Humanists UK 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, Humanists UK 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.

Get involved

Humanists UK 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 and incurably suffering, or write to a newspaper. Our Take Action Toolkit has advice on how to go about this.

You can also support Humanists UK 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 Humanists UK.

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