THIS Friday the House of Lords is due to debate what would be a momentous change in the law. Peers will consider an assisted dying bill proposed by Lord Falconer, a life-long campaigner for voluntary euthanasia. Health and Education Editor Barry Nelson answers some of your questions.
LORD Falconer’s proposed assisted dying bill would make it legal for terminally ill adults in England and Wales to be given assistance to end their own lives.
It would only be applicable to some with less than six months to live. Two doctors would have to independently confirm that the patient was terminally ill and had reached their own, informed decision to die.
WHAT is behind this new push to make assisted dying legal?
IN 2012 the Commission on Assisted Dying, set up and funded by campaign groups calling for a change in the law, concluded that there was a “strong case” for allowing assisted suicide for people who are terminally ill.
WHAT is the current legislative situation and have there been previous efforts to change the law?
CURRENTLY the 1961 Suicide Act makes it an offence to encourage or assist a suicide or suicide attempt in England and Wales.
Anyone found guilty of helping someone in this way could face up to 14 years in prison. There have been a number of previous attempts to legalise assisted dying but they have all been rejected by Parliament.
WHAT is the legal situation in foreign countries?
ASSISTED dying is already a reality in a number of other European countries, including Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands.
Another big European country, France, is currently considering joining this club, although the French medical ethics council is opposed to this move.
HOW likely is it that the proposed assisted dying bill will become law?
POLITICAL commentators believe it is very unlikely that Lord Falconer’s proposed bill will be supported by peers.
One of the most powerful opponents of change is the Church of England. Last weekend the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, told The Daily Telegraph that legalising assisted dying would leave “a sword of Damocles” hanging over the head of every vulnerable, terminally-ill person in the country. The Archbishop has also said the assisted dying bill is “mistaken and dangerous” and has suggested that a Royal Commission should look into the issues raised by the bill.
ARE there senior church members who support the assisted dying bill?
THE most prominent Anglican to voice their support for new legislation on assisted dying is Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, who previously opposed such changes to the law.
Lord Carey wrote in The Daily Mail that he had dropped his opposition to the bill “in the face of the reality of needless suffering.”
Another leading church figure who supports the new legislation on assisted dying is the retired Anglican Archbishop, Desmond Tutu, 82, who wrote: “I have been fortunate to spend my life working for dignity for the living. Now I wish to apply my mind to the issue of dignity for the dying. I revere the sanctity of life – but not at any cost.”
WHAT do terminally-ill patients think about the prospect of assisted dying becoming lawful?
WHILE there are a broad range of views among terminally ill patients, a number who support assisted dying are backing the efforts of campaign group Dignity in Dying.
Amongst them is Margaret John, from York, a retired geography teacher in her 70s who was diagnosed with incurable ovarian cancer in 2008 and has undergone extensive surgery and chemotherapy.
Earlier this year she told The Northern Echo: “I’m by no means ready to go yet but I’ve had to accept that this is a terminal condition, as is life. I do not believe in euthanasia, all I want is access to a doctor who could give me information about how to end it....the last thing I would want is to be stuck in a bed waiting to die, because that’s not living and quality of life is very important to me.”
WHAT is the view of doctors who specialise in caring for terminally ill patients?
EARLIER this year Dr Alex Nicholson, consultant in palliative medicine at James Cook University in Middlesbrough and visiting fellow at Teesside University, told The Northern Echo: “I can fully understand that some people need an exit strategy before they reach a certain level, but, ultimately, I’m a doctor and not in support of killing people.”