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Assisted dying ban 'inadequate and incoherent'

5 January 2012

The ban on assisted suicide is “inadequate and incoherent”, a high level commission has said as it called for a review of the law.

In a report this morning the Commission on Assisted Dying, chaired by the former lord chancellor Lord Falconer, said the practice should be made lawful subject to certain conditions.

Published by think tank Demos, the report concluded that assisted dying should be legal where a patient is diagnosed with a terminal illness, has not been unduly influenced by others, and has the capacity to make a voluntary and informed choice.

The report specifically states that a patient’s decision-making ability should not be impaired by mental health problems, including depression.

Legislation making assisted suicide lawful would need to ensure that eight safeguard principles are met, including the involvement of two independent doctors, support throughout from properly trained care professionals, and that the patient must be “fully informed of all the options available to them for treatment, care and support and still wishes to proceed”.

In all cases, assisted dying would only be lawful if the patient takes the final action that will end their own life.

More generally, the commission recommends that any new law should provide detailed guidance on how lethal medication to be used for an assisted death should be stored, transported and administered to prevent the risk of misuse and theft.

In addition, the death certificate would expressly record it as an assisted death and would be reported as such to a national monitoring commission with powers to review all cases and to investigate retrospectively whether individual cases complied with the law.

In an attempt to rebut accusations that such laws would put vulnerable people at risk, the commission said the legalisation of assisted suicide should take place alongside a review of health and social care services as a whole.

“New legislation would be only one (albeit very important) piece of the picture”, the report, said, adding that the DPP should still make use of its powers in non-terminal cases, that specific codes of practice should be drawn up for care professionals, and that doctors involved in assisted dying cases should be given specific support and be supervised.

There was near unanimity within the commission that conditional lawfulness should be pursued, with only one member, Reverend Canon Dr James Woodward, against a review of the ban.

Until greater ethical, moral and social consensus had been generated on the issue, the time was not right to consider a change in the law, the reverend said.

Current law as laid out in the Suicide Act 1961 makes it illegal to help a person kill themselves.

The prohibition has been construed to possibly include buying plane tickets for a terminally-ill patient to travel to a jurisdiction where the practice is lawful, such as Switzerland – a common option for British nationals attempting to bypass the prohibition.

In the most recent guidance on the Act, CPS head Keir Starmer said individuals would be unlikely to face prosecution if they helped out of compassion for the so-called victim and they didn’t stand to benefit from their death.

It was the case of Debbie Purdy, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, which triggered a review of the earlier guidance.

The director of public prosecution had refused her request for assurances that her husband, Cuban violinist Omar Puente would not be prosecuted if he travelled with her to the Dignitas clinic in Zurich.

In July 2009 the House of Lords ruled unanimously that the DPP’s refusal to issue offence-specific guidance was a breach of article 8 ECHR on the right to family life.

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