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Assisted Dying Legislation: North America and England and Wales

Published Wednesday, March 1, 2017

This House of Lords Library briefing sets out the law in Canada and selected states in the United States ahead of the question for short debate on 6 March 2017 on whether recent legislative changes on assisted dying in North America provide an appropriate basis for legislation in England and Wales. It also provides an overview of the law as it currently stands in England and Wales, as well as a brief legal history of the changes and attempts to change it.

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Following the Canadian Supreme Court’s decision in Carter v Canada (Attorney General) in 2015, which declared that sections of the Canadian Criminal Code were in violation of an individual’s rights under the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, change to the Criminal Code exempts certain medical practitioners and individuals from culpable homicide, therefore allowing both voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide, subject to a number of conditions. ‘Assisted dying’ or ‘assisted suicide’ is unlawful in the majority of US states, save for Oregon, Washington, Vermont, California and Colorado, allow adult residents of their state, who are capable of voluntarily making decisions about their health, and are terminally ill with a prognosis of six months, to seek lethal medication for self-administration. Montana provides a defence for physicians on the event they face homicide changes. 

Section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961 (as amended by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009) in England and Wales makes it criminally unlawful for an individual to perform an act capable of encouraging or assisting the suicide or attempted suicide of another person, where that individual’s act was intended to encourage, assist or attempt at suicide. There have been a number of challenges to the Suicide Act 1961. In 2014, the Supreme Court considered the state of the law in the context of Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which ultimately deferred the matter to Parliament for consideration. Thus far, there have been attempted amendments and several private member’s bills in parliament that have been unsuccessful in changing the law.

Lords In Focus LIF-2017-0019

Author: Amritpal Bachu

Topics: Crime, Criminal law, Death, Patient rights and complaints

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The House of Lords Library delivers research and information services to Members and staff of the House in support of parliamentary business.