Assisted Suicide in the United Kingdom

I recently spent two days at the 2nd International Symposium on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide.  Attendees from around the world gathered to learn the latest information on what is happening in the battle to stop the legalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide. In Part 1 of my observations, I’d like to start with some information from a speaker from the United Kingdom.

Dr. Peter Saunders, director of the Care Not Killing Alliance, spoke about past and current efforts in the UK to legalize assisted suicide. He noted the following as important legislative steps towards where the UK is presently:

  • 1961 Suicide Act — Suicide was legal, but assisting with a suicide was still illegal.
  • 1965 Murder Act — Outlawed the death penalty, but the intentional killing of another person was still illegal.
  • 2005 Mental Capacity Act — It is a crime for a doctor to treat a patient against an advance refusal (living will in the US).

After several failed attempts to introduce bills to legalize assisted suicide, the main pro-euthanasia organization in the UK (Dignity in Dying) changed tactics.  Since so many advances have been made in the area of palliative care and pain mitigation, the focus has switched from cancer patients with uncontrollable pain to people with neurological diseases – the argument being that they should have the option to choose when to die. In 2006, the Assisted Dying Bill was introduced in the Parliament.  The main points of the bill included:

  • This was physician-assisted suicide (modeled after Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act), not euthanasia.
  • Nurses would be involved in the process.
  • This bill was for England and Wales only.

After much work by the Care Not Killing Alliance, the bill was defeated. However, that has not stopped pro-euthanasia forces in the UK. In September 2008, medical ethics expert Baroness Warnock stated that dementia patients are wasting their families’ lives and wasting the resources of the National Health Service, thus they have a duty to die.

In early December 2008, British television aired a program showing the assisted suicide of an American in Zurich highlighted the growing “suicide tourism” that occurs in Switzerland due to its relatively unrestrictive assisted suicide laws. Shortly thereafter, well-known broadcaster John Humphrys announced he was co-authoring a book in which he will call for the legalization of euthanasia. Finally, assisted suicide was glamorized in a docudrama that aired in January 2009 on BBC called “A Short Stay in Switzerland.”

And now, there are efforts underway calling for an amendment to the Suicide Act to protect from prosecution anyone who helps someone to travel to Switzerland in order to commit suicide.

After you’ve digested all of this, click here to read Part 2, The Coming “E” Battle.