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Assisted dying legal in ‘strictly defined circumstances’

Laws legalising assisted suicide are a case of 'when' not 'if' according to bill promoter Lord Falconer

13 May 2013

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Terminally ill adults with fewer than six months to live may soon be granted the right to die after a private member's bill goes before the House of Lords on Wednesday (15 May).

Lord Falconer will table the assisted dying bill that calls for legalising helping someone else to die in "strictly defined circumstances".

Previous attempts at legalisation were rejected in 2006 and 2009, while religious and medical groups remain opposed.

Instead, the Director of Public Prosecutions introduced new policy guidelines in 2010 after the case of multiple sclerosis sufferer Debbie Purdy, who asked that her husband would not be prosecuted if he escorted her to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland, where suicide is legal.

Meanwhile, campaigners continue to challenge the current law. Jane Nicklinson who is taking her late husband, Tony's, original claim against section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961, which makes assisted suicide a criminal offence, and for a declaration of necessity.

Paul Lamb, who is severely paralysed, was recently granted permission to join the campaign. He is unable to take his own life and needs a doctor to kill him, which amounts to murder under the specific law in England and Wales.

The case are being held at the Court of Appeal today (13 May) and tomorrow. Another man, a 48-year-old known only as Martin, is also seeking a change to the prosecution of assisted suicide.

Settled intention

The new law would be underpinned by safeguards including patients having to prove they have the mental capacity to make their choice, were not being unduly influenced and had a "settled intention" about their wishes.

Campaigning charity Dignity in Dying supports the move. A spokesperson said the bill's safeguards would be based on the findings of the Commission on Assisted Dying, chaired by Lord Falconer, which found that the current status of assisted dying is inadequate and incoherent.

"If a vote is tabled at second reading, we are hopeful that the bill will progress to committee stage where the criteria and safeguards of the bill will be scrutinised in detail," he said.

In a response for The Telegraph, Lord Carlile of Berriew QC said: "Advocates of such a law tell us that they are not talking about suicide. They say that helping people who are terminally ill to end their lives is not assisting suicide because they are expected to die.

"This is, of course, nonsense. In law, as in the English language, if you take your own life, whatever your state of health, that is suicide; and a doctor or anyone else who supplies you with the means to do so is assisting suicide.

"Sound lawmaking demands clarity. It cannot be based on euphemisms, verbal evasions or Orwellian spin."

Lord Falconer said legislation needs to "catch up" with public attitudes.

A YouGov poll published in April found seven out of ten people agreed that sufferers of incurable diseases should have the right to ask close family or friends to help them die without the risk of prosecution.

More than a third of respondents who support a law change cited concerns about a lack of decent end-of-life care in the UK.

As well as Switzerland, assisted suicide is legal in Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Belgium.

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