Published on 5 Jan 2012 Sections

Assisted suicide should be legal, says commission

The Commission on Assisted Dying, led by former lord chancellor Lord Falconer, calls for parliament to give doctors the right to help terminally ill people die.

The report is the result of a year of investigation by Lord Falconer and a team including doctors, religious leaders and a former police commissioner. They say that doctors should be given the right to help people die if they have less than a year to live. Stringent safeguards would be put in place to protect people who might be simply temporarily depressed or experiencing pressure from friends and family.

The panel was funded by campaigners who want a change in the law, but one member, Reverend Canon Dr James Woodward, said he could not back the majority decision, until a greater ethical consensus had been generated on the issue.

New guidelines for prosecutors in assisted suicide cases were brought in in February 2011, meaning that anyone acting with compassion to help someone who is seriously ill and actively wants to die is unlikely to face criminal charges. But cases are decided on an individual basis and assisted suicide is still a criminal offence, punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

The rules suggested by the commission would mean that dementia patients would not be eligible, as it would only apply to those with less than a year left to live – and anyone in the final year of dementia would not be considered capable of making an informed decision. People with long-term serious disabilities would also not qualify.

Critics of the commission’s findings say any further change in the law would risk increasing pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives out of fear that they are a burden on others. The Care Not Killing alliance said it could lead to around 13,000 deaths a year.

Disability groups worried about the vulnerable

Safeguards would be built in to any new legislation, but some groups say the proposals are not stringent enough.

Richard Hawkes, chief executive of the disability charity Scope, one of the organisations concerned about the impact of assisted dying laws, said he had “little confidence” in the comission’s proposed safeguards. “The over-simple recommendations betray a lack of understanding of disability,” he said.

“The report also recommends drawing an arbitrary line between people with a terminal illness and people with long-term impairments, excluding the latter from legalised assisted dying. In reality, the lines between the two can ofen be blurred, making this distinction unworkable.”

A Ministry of Justice spokeswoman said: “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.”