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Dignity in Dying welcomes opportunity for Parliament to modernise outdated law on assisting suicide, 03/12/2008

Media statement on Queen’s Speech

3rd December 2008

Dignity in Dying welcomes opportunity for Parliament to modernise outdated law on assisted suicide

In today’s Queen’s Speech, the Government outlined its intention to “modernise the law on assisting suicide to help increase public understanding and reassure people that it applies as much on the internet as it does offline”. Revisions to the 1961 Suicide Act will be contained in the Coroners and Justice Bill.

Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying said:

“Dignity in Dying welcomes the Government’s plans to modernise the law on assisted suicide, but is concerned that a narrow revision of the law will be a wasted opportunity to provide terminally ill adults with greater choice. The 1961 Suicide Act is nearly 50 years old, and is clearly not fit for purpose. It provides insufficient protection for vulnerable people, whilst at the same time denies choice to mentally competent terminally ill adults in unbearable suffering. This forces some people to resort to desperate and often dangerous measures, such as travelling abroad to die, ‘mercy killings’ and botched suicides. The current situation also leads to some doctors illegally assisting their patients to die at great cost to their freedom and livelihood.

“To reflect the wishes of the public and to provide a more safeguarded and regulated approach to end-of-life decision making, we need an updated law which defines assisted dying, where a mentally competent terminally ill adult in unbearable suffering is given assistance to die, as being separate from instances where a person, whether online or not, assists the suicide of a person who is not formally dying.

“The High Court recently stated that this was a matter for Parliament to resolve, thankfully it now has the opportunity to do so.”

Today’s Queen’s speech also contained a number of other measures that will impact on people at the end of their lives. The Health Bill will take forward the Government’s agenda on the personalisation of health services, whilst the Coroners and Justice Bill as well as modernising the 1961 Suicide Act, contains separate measures that will provide additional support to the bereaved and will also seek to update the law of murder, which will affect the courts’ approach to genuine ‘mercy killers’.

Commenting on the futher measures contained within the Queen’s Speech, Sarah Wootton said:

“Further efforts to provide people at the end of their lives with personalised, patient centred care are very much welcomed as are efforts to increase support for the recently bereaved. But, we are concerned that the Government’s plans to revise the law of murder, while well intentioned, will have unintended negative consequences.”

“At present there is a benign conspiracy that ensures that genuine ‘mercy killers’ who act in response to persistent requests from a loved one and out of compassion do not serve custodial sentences.

“The Law Commission reviewed the law of murder in 2007 and made a number of recommendations including that, alongside any changes to the law, the Government should conduct a separate review on ‘mercy killing’. This recommendation has not been met. Consequently, any changes to the law of murder, and specifically to the scope of diminished responsibility, are likely to force judges to give custodial sentences to people who help end the suffering of a loved one.

“This change will be negated, if Parliament has the resolve to allow mentally competent terminally ill adults to choose an assisted death, within strict legal safeguards, should their suffering become unbearable. If it fails to do this the Government’s actions are likely to make what is an already bad situation worse.”


Notes to editor:

About Dignity in Dying:

Dignity in Dying campaigns for greater choice, control and access to services at the end of life. It advocates providing terminally ill adults with the option of an assisted death, within strict legal safeguards, and for universal access to high quality end-of-life care.

Dignity in Dying has over 100,000 supporters and receives its funding entirely from donations from the public.

Opinion polls consistently show that at least 80% of the UK population supports a change in the law on assisted dying.

The Suicide Act 1961

Section 2 of the 1961 Suicide Act states that “a person who aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another, or attempt by another to commit suicide shall be liable on conviction on indictment to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years”

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