Thursday, 5 January 2012
Assisted suicide: 'Strong case for legalisation
Assisting a suicide is illegal in England and Wales
There is a "strong case" for allowing assisted suicide for people who are terminally ill in England and Wales, a group of experts says.
The Commission on Assisted Dying - set up and funded by campaigners who want to see a change in the law - said the current system was "inadequate".
It said it was possible to allow assisted dying within a strict set of rules to ensure it was not abused.
But the report has had a mixed response. Critics say it is biased.
The commission was chaired by Lord Falconer, a barrister and former justice secretary, and included a wide range of experts including doctors, an ex-police commissioner and a former president of the General Medical Council.
The panel received evidence from more than 1,300 sources during its year-long inquiry, although some groups opposed to a change in the law refused to take part because of its remit and way it was put together.
It was funded by the author Sir Terry Pratchett, who has Alzheimer's Disease, and set up by Dignity in Dying, both of which have called for the law to be changed.
The group said that assisted suicide should be allowed if a person was over 18, terminally ill and judged as having less than 12 months to live, making a voluntary choice and not impaired mentally.
Before it should be allowed, the person would also need to be independently assessed by two doctors, the report said.
It also suggested that the individual would have to take the medicine themselves as euthanasia - where another person administers the substance - should not be allowed.
And it said end-of-life care needed to be improved to ensure people were not pushed into the decision because of inadequate access to care.
With all these factors in place, the commission said there was a "strong case" for allowing assisted dying.
However, one of the 11 commissioners, Reverend Canon Dr James Woodward, disagreed with the conclusion.
The commissioners also said the current arrangements were "inadequate, incoherent and should not continue".
Assisting a suicide is illegal under the 1961 Suicide Act, but last year the director of public prosecutions laid out guidance covering what factors would be taken into consideration when deciding whether to prosecute a person who had helped someone to die.
This measure was ordered by the Law Lords, who ruled a woman with multiple sclerosis had the right to know under what circumstances her husband would be prosecuted if he helped her travel abroad to die.
Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, said the report was "comprehensive and robust", adding she hoped it would "form the foundation of future legislative change".
But Dr Peter Saunders, campaign director of Care Not Killing, an alliance of faith and disability groups and doctors, said: "This investigation was unnecessary, biased and lacking in transparency, and its report is seriously flawed.
"It is being spun as a comprehensive, objective and independent review into this complicated issue. It is anything but."
A spokeswoman for the British Medical Association, which refused to give evidence to the commission, said: "While, there is a spectrum of views on assisted dying within the medical profession, the BMA believes that the majority of doctors do not want to legalise assisted dying."
The government indicated there were no plans to change the law.
"The government believes that any change to the law in this emotive and contentious area is an issue of individual conscience and a matter for Parliament to decide rather than government policy," a Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said.