A report by MPs later this year will reignite a passionate debate over whether assisted dying/assisted suicide should be legalised. But will it lead to a change in the law?
The House of Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee has been investigating the issue for more than six months, taking written and oral evidence from supporters and opponents of changing the existing law. It is the first time a committee of MPs has examined the question.
Both assisted dying and assisted suicide are illegal in the UK, despite several attempts in Parliament and strong public pressure to make them lawful. Campaigners pushing for the law to be changed have been given fresh impetus by the committee’s intervention.
According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), people with serious and potentially terminal illnesses are more than twice as likely to take their own lives than those without. Dignity in Dying estimates that up to 650 terminally ill people every year take their own lives. In 2016, 47 British people chose to go to Switzerland for an assisted death and since 2010, 250 people have done so.
The current inquiry came after 155,000 people signed a petition in July 2022 calling for the law to be changed. There was no Parliamentary vote but MPs did debate the issue, and supporters of reform outnumbered opponents by two to one.
Victory on the road
Sarah Wootton, Dignity in Dying Chief Executive, said: “This inquiry is a victory on the road to assisted dying law reform in the UK.
“Every day, dying people are being forced to make impossible decisions between suffering, suicide or seeking the compassion of another country. The message from the public to politicians couldn’t be simpler; you cannot ignore this any longer.”
Kit Malthouse MP, co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Choice at the End of Life, and former Cabinet minister, said:
“The challenge for the Committee, especially those who have been opposed in the past, is to examine the evidence on whether the current law is serving the public – and primarily dying people and their families – as it should.”
The House of Commons inquiry heard from thousands of members of the public and found that the top three reasons given by supporters of changing the law were: reducing suffering, personal dignity and personal autonomy. Those opposing cited risk of coercion, risk of devaluing life and sanctity of life as their main considerations.
Fierce opposition still exists
However, changing the law is fiercely opposed by many organisations. Christian Action Research and Education (CARE) says:
“All life has intrinsic value and dignity – regardless of its condition. As Christians, we are called to protect those who are vulnerable and assist people to live – not to commit suicide. CARE therefore strongly opposes a change to the law on assisted suicide in the UK, and we work to support truly compassionate approaches to care at the end of life. We want to see a society that truly upholds the dignity of every life.”
According to Dignity in Dying, “The British public overwhelmingly support law change on assisted dying. Polling over the last 30 years has consistently shown around 80 percent of people favour changing the law […] subject to strict safeguards and alongside access to high-quality end-of-life care.”
However, in 2015, in the first vote on the issue for 20 years, the Commons were overwhelmingly against changing the law. In 2021, a bill introduced by Baroness Meacher, chair of Dignity in Dying, to change the law received its second reading but fell because it ran out of Parliamentary time.
Very few criminal cases
The actual number of cases successfully prosecuted are very few. The Guardian reports that “Under the Suicide Act 1961 in England and Wales, it is a criminal offence to encourage or assist another person’s suicide. But Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) guidance says charges are less likely to be needed if the victim reached a voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision and the suspect was wholly motivated by compassion.”
The CPS states that between April 2009 and March 2023, the police referred 182 cases recorded as assisted suicide to the CPS. Of these 182 cases, the CPS did not proceed with 125 and 35 cases were withdrawn by the police, leaving only 22 cases in that 14-year period.
Currently there are four ongoing cases. Only four cases have been successfully prosecuted, one case acquitted, and eight others were referred elsewhere as different crimes.
A varied response from key organisations
Organisations representing the medical profession, including the British Medical Association (BMA), the Royal College of Physicians (RCP), the Royal College of Nursing (RCN) and the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) have adopted a neutral position.
However, Professor John Wyatt, a former NHS consultant, has warned that if it became mandatory for all doctors to make their terminally ill patients aware that assisted suicide was an option, it may not be possible for those who believe strongly that assisting suicide is wrong to continue to work within the NHS.
Care Minister Helen Whately told the inquiry: “The Government’s position is that this a debate to be led by Parliament. […] If the will of Parliament is that the law on assisted dying should be changed, the Government would not stand in its way.”
Interestingly, there is pressure to change the law from the Isle of Man and Jersey where both Parliaments voted overwhelmingly in favour of legalisation in principle. An assisted dying bill in Scotland is going through the Parliamentary process after 76 percent of responses to a public consultation were wholly supportive.
The House of Commons Select Committee is expected to report later this year. Even if it supports legalisation, campaigners face a long and bitter Parliamentary struggle to get the necessary legislation enacted.