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Functioning of the existing law relating to assisted dying

Published Wednesday, July 3, 2019

A debate will take place in the Commons Chamber on 4 July 2019 on the functioning of the existing law relating to assisted dying. The debate will be led by Nick Boles, Sarah Champion and Norman Lamb.

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In the submission to the Backbench Business Committee for the debate, Nick Boles said that assisted dying was a subject that will only ever be debated “if Back Benchers and the Backbench Business Committee make an opportunity for it.”  He set out some of the developments that have happened in this area since the Commons Second Reading of the Assisted Dying Bill in 2015:

First, and as a background, the level of public support for some kind of very focused, very limited assisted dying legal change keeps on rising and is now up to mid-80%. Amazingly, that goes across all sorts of parties and age groups, including people who say they have an active religious faith— again, you get very, very high majorities in favour of it. It is one of those issues where Parliament seems to be lagging behind public opinion.

Medical opinion has also been shifting quite dramatically. In recent times, two of the most important Royal Colleges have shifted from being formally opposed to assisted dying reform to being formally neutral—that is the Royal College of Nursing and the Royal College of Physicians. We anticipate that the Royal College of General Practitioners and the British Medical Association will be reviewing their positions shortly.

Mr Boles also noted recent events in 2019, including those involving Geoffrey and Ann Whaley:

There have also been some very high-profile legal cases and legal opinion.

There was the legal position of the Whaley family. Ann Whaley, whose husband Geoff took his own life with the assistance of the Dignitas clinic— they did not want to go to Dignitas but were forced to because they were not able to make the same arrangements here—was interviewed under caution by police as part of that process, when all she was trying to do was help the man she loved be in control of his final moments.

We have had this extraordinary statement by Lord Sumption in “The Reith Lectures”, as recently as 21 May, in which he basically said that the law shouldn’t be changed, but that people should continue to break it if their conscience prompted them to do so. That is an extraordinary statement by a very senior jurist and one that reveals how entirely out of sync with not just current opinion, but current moral sentiments the law in the UK is.

That is why Canada has changed the law, various states in Australia have changed the law and various states in the United States of America have changed the law—to make some provision for people with terminal illness to be able to bring their lives to a close at a time and in a manner of their choosing.

We have a great deal of cross-party support for this on the Back Benches, but also, significantly, on the Front Bench. The Lord Chancellor and the Secretary of State for Justice recently said, following the case of Ann and Geoff Whaley, that he believes that some change in the law is justified. On that basis, I hope that you will find it a worthwhile subject for Parliament, which, as far as I can tell, has not much to do, to grapple with one of the most fundamental issues of our time.

This debate pack provides further information on the law on assisted dying and previous Parliamentary attempts to change the law. 

Commons Debate packs CDP-2019-0179

Authors: Nikki Sutherland; Sarah Barber; Joanna Dawson

Topics: Administration of justice, Criminal law, Medical ethics

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