What is assisted dying? Current laws explained ahead of inquiry by MPs next year

 Campaigners in support of assisted dying in 2015 (Rob Stothard / Getty Images)
Campaigners in support of assisted dying in 2015 (Rob Stothard / Getty Images)

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

The Health and Social Care Committee said its inquiry would examine “different perspectives” in the debate around assisted dying, with a particular focus on the experience of other countries that have changed their laws.

The committee will hear evidence from medical professionals, campaigners, and the public, and make recommendations to the Government.

Currently, 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.

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 in order to gain financially, or hospitals using it as an excuse to free up hospital beds.

MPs debated the issue in Parliament earlier this year after a petition received more than 155,000 signatures.

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 surrounding assisted dying?

Euthanasia and assisted suicide are both illegal. Assisted suicide is pubishable 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 in some US states.

Some of the specific circumstances under which it is permitted include if someone was 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.”

What will the Government debate?

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.”