The current law is not working – legislation with clear safeguards is needed
Research evidence shows us that patients' lives are being ended now in the UK illegally and without safeguards. In 2009 0.21% of deaths attended by a medical practitioner in the UK were as a result of voluntary euthanasia (where the doctor directly and deliberately ends the patient’s life at their request), and 0.3% of deaths were ended by involuntary euthanasia - where a doctor ends the life of a patient without their explicit request. This translates to approximately 2,500 deaths out of 500,000 per year - a small, but significant, minority.
The lack of safeguarded choice for dying people drives some to attempt suicide alone, to ask a loved one to help or to travel overseas to die. Approximately 160 British citizens have been helped to end their lives in Switzerland and a further 800 are members of Dignitas, which has much less stringent safeguards than we propose.
The Director of Public Prosecutions’ prosecuting policy has given people greater clarity on prosecution in cases of assisted suicide, and effectively decriminalised amateur assistance to die. However, it is not a change in the law and all checks take place after a person has died when it is too late to prevent potential abuse. This does not protect vulnerable people and does not ensure that a person's reasons for requesting an assisted death are examined or alternatives explored.
What is more, the prosecuting policy leaves healthcare professionals vulnerable. Although the policy effectively decriminalises amateur assistance, healthcare professionals are more likely to be prosecuted under the policy. But it is not clear what constitutes assistance. Healthcare professionals might be seen as assisting someone’s death by, say, providing medical records for patients wishing to travel to Dignitas to die.
Legilisation of assisted dying with transparent processes and up-front safeguards would provide far greater protection to people than current law and practice.