Wolverhampton South MP Rob Marris’s Assisted Dying Bill is going to be debated and voted upon in what’s known as it’s Second Reading in the House of Commons on September 11th. This is the first time in 18 years that MPs will have had the chance to vote on an assisted suicide (AS) law.
We want to make sure that MPs vote ‘NO’ and kill the bill on September 11th. see also info about the lobby on 14th July
We need to talk to our MPs about our fears and concerns about such a bill, to find whether they’re for or against it and if the latter, we desperately need them to attend on 11th September to vote against this bill.
This information sheet is the legal one. It details the current legal situation and looks at the details of these assisted dying bills.
The current situation
Those of us who oppose a change in the law, believe the current situation is adequate. Under the 1961 Suicide Act, killing yourself is not illegal but encouraging or assisting another person’s suicide is and can lead to up to 14 years imprisonment. The current law acts a deterrent to malicious or manipulative assistance with suicide.
But the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) also has a discretion not to prosecute if, for example, it is clear that assistance has been given reluctantly / after serious soul-searching or for ‘wholly compassionate’ reasons to ill or disabled people. It is this discretion that has allowed the high profile assisted suicide cases to avoid prosecution.
There are a list of factors considered when deciding if the law has been broken but in reality, if a person has made it clear that they want to end their life by an assisted suicide for health / impairment reasons and a friend or family member aids them (as opposed to a medical professional) then whilst they may be investigated, it is unlikely that they will be prosecuted. Infact less than 20 cases a year throughout the whole of England and Wales cross the desk of the DPP and few of them call for prosecution. And yet apparently this law isn’t working?
But laws send out messages – when something is legalised, it acquires the stamp of social approval. An assisted suicide law says, in effect, that if you are terminally ill, ending your life is an option that it is appropriate to consider.
And by putting assisted suicide into the hands of the medical profession, it’s feared it could become a treatment option.
Critics of the current law say that it’s unfair for families and friends to have to help an ill or disabled person to end their lives and not know in advance whether or not they’ll be investigated and charged. We say the illegatlity of the assisted suicide acts as a deterrent and ensures it is not the easy option.
Supporters say that because it’s not currently legal for a Dr to assist, that people have to kill themselves with amateur means which may fail. We say that everyone has the means to commit suicide and why should ill / disabled people be given a 100% successful method when over 90% of suicides for everyone else actually fail?
They say that dying people may have no choice but to take themselves off to somewhere like Dignitas before they’re ready to die but while the person is still well enough to travel – and that travelling to Dignitas is costly and difficult for those involved. We say that rather bringing assisted suicide to the masses and make it an easy option, that there should be improvements to end of life care for all people to ensure everyone can have a peaceful and pain free end to their life.
Supporters say they want the right to die. We believe the right to die already exists for each and every one of us. What those wanting a change in the law are actually asking for is the right for someone else to kill them.
Instead of a discretionary power where very few assisted suicides are ever prosecuted, supporters of a change in the law want to lay down in advance, the situations when it is okay for a Dr to assist a person to end their life. We say the law as it is enables the choice of a few whilst protecting the many.
What’s in the Assisted Dying Bill?
At the time of writing the text of the Marris bill is unknown but it’s likely that it will be very similar to the Lord Falconer Assisted Dying Bill that Not Dead Yet UK protested against in the previous Parliament. (Lord Falconer has also re-introduced his Assisted Dying Bill into the House of Lords so even if we defeat the Marris Bill in the Commons, we will still have to contend with Falconer at some point in the future!). Firstly they’re calling it an assisted dying and not an assisted suicide bill. They say it’s because it’s only for those who are actually dying but we say it’s to make the term more palatable, after all, the current campaigning group Dignity in Dying used to be called the Voluntary Euthanasia Society.
If passed, the ‘assisted dying bill’ would license doctors to supply lethal drugs to:
- terminally ill patients with less than 6 months to live and who have,
- a settled intent to end his or her life
- the capacity to make such a decision and
- are making the request voluntarily, on an informed basis and without pressure or duress
Two doctors are required to certify that these criteria have been met and their decision is to be referred to a judge of the High Court for confirmation. There is no requirement for a psychological assessment to assess capacity. The doctors do not have to be your regular doctors. If approved, the person would be supplied with the lethal drugs to enable them to commit suicide.
A medical professional (but not necessarily a doctor) would remain with the person until they died but they cannot help them to take the drugs – to do so would cross the line between assisted suicide and euthanasia.
Many people who support this bill believe it is to assist those who cannot kill themselves to have the same opportunity as everyone else but in fact, if someone cannot physically ingest or do the final act themselves would not technically come under this bill.
The proposed law – unsafe to change
Critics of the bill are meant to be reassured by ‘safeguards’ to protect ‘the vulnerable’ from abuse – and ultimately murder. So what safeguards exist to protect someone from being killed without their fully informed consent?
The proposals list a number of qualifying criteria for assisted suicide – such as settled intent, capacity to make the decision and freedom from pressure – but they do not translate these criteria into concrete safeguards. Instead, they
propose that these issues should be dealt with by the Secretary of State in codes of practice AFTER Parliament has agreed to change the law. SO MPs don’t even know the full extent of what they’d be voting for on September 11th. In effect, the issue of safeguarding has been side-stepped and Parliament is being asked to sign a blank cheque.
After concern about lack of safeguards was raised when the House of Lords debated the Assisted Dying Bill, Lord Falconer added a proposal that when a doctor assessing a request for assisted suicide considers that it meets the designated criteria, the decision should then be referred to a judge of the High Court for confirmation. The bill does not, however, require the Court to undertake any investigations of its own and as such, the role envisaged for the Court is little more than that of a rubber stamp. It is expected this will also be included in the Marris Bill.
Many aspects of a request for assistance with suicide go beyond a doctor’s professional competence. It may be fair to ask a doctor to confirm that a patient is terminally ill, to offer a prognosis and to advise on possible treatments. But most doctors are in no position to judge whether a request for assistance with suicide derives from a settled wish or whether there are any pressures operating in the background that could be influencing the request. In today’s world of busy multi-partner GP practices and declining home visits doctors often know little of their patients beyond what they pick up in the consulting room and they do not have the time or resources to set about investigating such matters.
The Oregon Experience
The Oregon Death with Dignity Act has been the blue print for the Falconer Bill and will be no doubt for the Marris Bill too. Here are some of the problems with the Oregon law:
- Individuals seeking assisted suicide can resort to doctor shopping- visiting doctor after doctor until one agrees to write the lethal prescription.
- Patients are often misdiagnosed as terminally ill with less than 6months to live when in fact they live for months and even years beyond what was originally expected.
- Individuals with a new illness or disability are often faced with depression, which requires more than Oregon’s 15 day waiting period to be treated.
- Many patients experience outside pressure to commit assisted suicide, which often goes unnoticed and unpunished.
- Individuals are often portrayed as a burden on their families and are made to feel that their life is not as valuable.
- In 2007, none of the individuals that requested assisted suicide in Oregon were referred for a mental health evaluation.
- Under Oregon law, depressed or mentally ill individuals can still be considered “competent” to request assisted suicide.
- Under Oregon law, doctors that fail to report or file incomplete or inaccurate reports face no penalties.
- All records are sealed and all underlying data is destroyed after the annual report is published.
- The 2013 Oregon statistics reveal that the three main reasons given for requesting an assisted suicide are loss of autonomy (93%), decreasing ability to participate in activities that make life enjoyable (88.7%) and loss of dignity (73.2%). By comparison, inadequate pain control or concern about it was one of the least important concerns at 28.2%.
- Assisted suicide is also legal in Washington State. The 2013 annual report has shown that 61% of all those who were supplied lethal drugs in order to commit suicide listed the feeling of being a burden on family, friends or caregivers as one of their main reasons for their request.
- 64 year old Barbara Wagner was diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer. Her oncologist prescribed chemotherapy to slow cancer growth, reduce symptoms, and extend her life. The Oregon Health Plan however would not cover the costs for her chemotherapy prescription, but sent her a letter saying they would instead pay for assisted suicide drugs.