What is assisted dying? UK laws explained as Prue Leith fronts documentary

Supporters of assisted dying held a protest in 2015 after MPs voted against a bill to legalise it (Rob Stothard / Getty Images)
Supporters of assisted dying held a protest in 2015 after MPs voted against a bill to legalise it (Rob Stothard / Getty Images)

Prue Leith slammed the UK’s “dreadful” assisted dying laws on Good Morning Britain in a debate with her Tory MP son.

The Great British Bake Off host, 82, is fronting in a Channel 4 documentary with her son on the subject of euthanasia, which airs tonight.

Leith and her son Danny Kruger, who has been the MP for Devises since 2019, have opposing views on the subject – Leith supports assisted dying, while her son is against it.

The restaurateur and chef has said she would choose to die by euthanasia if she was unwell or in severe pain after watching her older brother David die in pain in 2012.

Speaking to ITV, Leith said:  “I still feel the law as it stands is dreadful for dying people. They often face a horrible death every year. And what choice do they have?

She added: “They can commit suicide which is perfectly legal, they can put up with it and just suffer or they can go to Switzerland, which is expensive. The law is not working and we should change it.”

Under the Suicide Act 1961, assisting someone to take their own life is an offence punishable with up to 14 years in prison in the UK.

However, some form of assisted dying or assisted suicide is legal in at least 27 jurisdictions worldwide. It became legal in Canada in 2015, in the Netherlands in 2001, and in the US state of Oregon in 1994.

A cross-party group of MPs is set to hold an inquiry into the law on assisted dying this year.

The issue arouses strong feelings on both sides, with supporters of legalisation arguing people should be able to help terminally ill loved ones who are experiencing great suffering to end their lives.

Opponents say it could be abused, with relatives pulling the plug on those unable to give their consent for financial gain, or hospitals using it to free up hospital beds.

What is assisted dying?

The NHS defines assisted dying as “the act of deliberately assisting another person to kill themselves”.

“If a relative of a person with a terminal illness obtained strong sedatives, knowing the person intended to use them to kill themselves, the relative may be considered to be assisting suicide.”

What are the UK laws on assisted dying?

Euthanasia and assisted suicide are both illegal. Assisted suicide is punishable by up to 14 years in prison, while the maximum penalty for euthanasia is life imprisonment.

In 2019, a terminally ill man lost his High Court challenge against the “blanket ban” on assisted dying. Phil Newby’s bid to bring legal action against the Government over the law that makes it a criminal offence for anyone to help another person end their life was rejected.

Where is assisted dying legal?

Assisted dying is legal (in certain circumstances) in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Spain, Belgium, Luxembourg, Canada, Colombia, and New Zealand. It is also allowed in Victoria, Australia, and some US states.

Some of the specific circumstances under which it is permitted include if someone is experiencing unbearable suffering, with no hope of getting better.

The laws and specific circumstances vary from country to country.

What is the Government’s position on assisted dying?

In September 2015, the House of Commons rejected the Assisted Dying (No2) Bill.

But Baroness Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill passed the Lords Second Reading without a vote, and is waiting for the Committee stage to be scheduled.

In response to the petition, the Government said: “If the will of Parliament is that the law on assisting suicide should change, the Government would not stand in the way of such change, but would seek to ensure that the law could be enforced in the way that Parliament intended.”

When Parliament debates petitions, MPs from all parties will discuss the issues raised in the debate and share their concerns with Government ministers.

What have supporters of assisted dying said?

Labour MP Rachel Hopkins said on Twitter: “Those with terminal illness should be allowed dignity in death which is why I’ll be speaking in support of assisted dying for terminally ill people.”

Conservative MP Lucy Allan said: “It’s not for Parliament to decide how the terminally ill manage their own death. Someone at the end of life has the right to decide, with their clinicians, what is best for them.

“Parliament is not about removing rights. Glad to be debating this on Monday.”

The charity Humanists said: “We’ve expressed hope that this debate will bring to light the huge public support assisted dying has, and that more MPs begin working towards a humane law.”

What have opponents of assisted dying said?

In October 2021, 1,689 current and retired doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and medical students signed an open letter opposing plans for a new law on assisted dying. The letter said: “The shift from preserving life to taking life is enormous and should not be minimised”.

The letter also said: “The prohibition of killing is the safeguard. The current law is the protection for the vulnerable.

“Any change would threaten society’s ability to safeguard vulnerable patients from abuse, it would undermine the trust the public places in physicians, and it would send a clear message to our frail, elderly, and disabled patients about the value that society places on them as people.”