A Bill to legalise assisted suicide in Scotland was rejected by the Scottish Parliament in December 2010. In the previous year, the law in England and Wales was clarified after a legal challenge from a multiple sclerosis victim.

2010: End of Life Assistance Bill rejected by Scottish Parliament

In December 2009, the Independent MSP Margo Macdonald, who has Parkinson’s Disease, put forward a bill in the Scottish Parliament to legalise assisted suicide.

The End of Life Assistance Bill would have allowed people whose lives become intolerable through a progressive degenerative condition, a trauma or terminal illness to seek a doctor’s help in dying. It also proposed a series of safeguards which would prevent abuse of the legislation.

The vote took place in December 2010 and MSPs were permitted to vote freely based on their consciences, rather than along party lines.

The End of Life Assistance Bill was defeated by 85 votes to 16 with two abstentions.

2009: Clarification on assisted suicide law for England and Wales

After a number of legal challenges by Debbie Purdy, a multiple sclerosis sufferer who wanted to know if her husband would be prosecuted for helping her to die, the law on assisted suicide in England and Wales was clarified in September 2009.

It was ruled that the decision to prosecute would be based on factors including the nature of the victim’s illness. All cases would be investigated by the police but discretion will still be used, the Director of Public Prosecutions said.

Assisting suicide was to remain illegal and carried a jail term of up to 14 years, but the implication was that it was unlikely that legal action would be taken against people if they assisted the suicide of a friend or relative who had a settled and informed wish to die.

2006: Assisted Dying Bill

The House of Lords has blocked a bill that would allow terminally ill people to be helped to die.

Lord Joffe’s bill, which had its second reading on Friday 12th May 2006, proposed that after signing a legal declaration that they wanted to die, a patient’s doctor could prescribe a lethal dose of medication that the patient could take themselves.

Only people with less than six months to live, who are suffering unbearably and deemed to be of sound mind and not depressed would be able to end their life under Lord Joffe’s proposal.

Peers spent the day in a passionate debate on whether or not it was right to allow a person who was terminally ill to be given drugs they could then use to end their own life.

Lord Joffe said: “We must find a solution to the unbearable suffering of patients whose needs cannot be met by palliative care.”

Peers backed an amendment to delay the bill for six months by 48 votes. (148 were in favour and 100 opposed.)

Lord Joffe said the move was intended to end the debate, but pledged to reintroduce his bill at a later date.

The government has said it will not block a further hearing of the bill.

The debate highlighted divisions between supporters of the right to die and those who want better palliative care.

Amongst those Lords against the bill were the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams, Lady Finlay, a professor in palliative care and Cardinal Cormac Murphy O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster. They urged more to be done instead to improve palliative care for terminally ill patients. These Lords were also supported by disability campaigners.

Opponents to the bill demonstrated outside Parliament and submitted a petition to Downing Street which was signed by 100,000 people.

The bill’s supporters said doctors should be able to prescribe drugs so a terminally ill person suffering terrible pain could choose to end his or her life.

These included Labour’s Baroness David aged 92. She said:

If I were terminally ill, I believe I would be the only person with the right to decide how I died, and whether I preferred palliative care to assisted dying.

It would provide me with an additional option on how to end my life, which I would find tremendously reassuring.

Baroness David, Labour peer

Mark Slattery, of the charity Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, said the campaign to introduce an assisted dying bill would continue. Julia Millington of the ProLife Alliance welcomed the Lords’ decision and stated they would continue to resist any change in the law.

Religious leaders

2005: Religious leaders made a strong stand

Britain’s faith leaders joined forces to protest against plans to revive the controversial right-to-die Bill in Parliament.

Nine leading figures representing the major faith groups spoke out against Lord Joffe’s proposals. Under the proposed legislation the terminally ill would be able to choose to die and then receive help to commit suicide.

But in an open letter to both Houses of Parliament, the religious leaders condemned the bill, saying:

Assisted suicide and euthanasia will radically change the social air we all breathe by severely undermining respect for life. …

We, the undersigned, hold all human life to be sacred and worthy of the utmost respect and note with concern that repeated attempts are being made to persuade Parliament to change the law on intentional killing so as to allow assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia for those who are terminally ill.

2005 open letter to the Houses of Parlliament from Britain’s religious leaders

Right to die

The letter was published after Lord Joffe announced plans to re-introduce his private member’s bill which would give terminally ill people the right to die.

The 73-year-old peer planned to revamp the legislation and bring it back to Parliament in early November. This was the third time he has introduced a bill to allow voluntary euthanasia or assisted suicide since 2003.

His previous legislation – the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill bill – ran out of parliamentary time before the General Election.

But it prompted a House of Lords select committee review of the law on assisted suicide. The committee’s report was debated in the Lords on October 10, 2005.

Providing alternatives

Representatives of Britain’s faith groups argued that the suffering of the terminally ill and dying could be minimised through rapid advances in palliative care.

Providing good care does not require any change in the law but a reprioritisation of NHS resources in order to ensure that adequate training is given to doctors and nurses and that centres of palliative care exist where they can be accessed by those who need them. The argument that assisted suicide or euthanasia is necessary to deal with the suffering of terminal illness is false.

2005 open letter to the Houses of Parlliament from Britain’s religious leaders

Other countries

Euthanasia in other countries

The letter also pointed to studies from Holland where euthanasia has been legal since 2001.

The Netherlands has the most liberal assisted suicide laws in the world. Under Dutch law, doctors can administer a lethal dose of muscle relaxants and sedatives to terminally ill patients at a patient’s request.

Britain’s religious leaders claim that one in every 32 deaths in the Netherlands is a result of legal or illegal euthanasia. In January 2005, a report in the Dutch Journal of Medicine alleged there had been 22 cases of illegal euthanasia involving infants born with spina bifida.

“A similar law here could lead to some 13,000 deaths a year and Dutch pro-euthanasia groups are now, moreover, campaigning for further relaxations of the law – for example, to encompass people with dementia,” said the faith leaders.

They also claimed that many doctors in Oregon in the US, where the Death with Dignity Act of 1994 legalised assisted suicide, were reluctant to help patients to die. In the UK, the religious leaders maintain that the largest most recent surveys show that most British doctors do not favour a change in the law.

Amending the bill

After the debate in the House of Lords in early October, Lord Joffe indicated that he might be prepared to amend his proposals so doctors would not be required to administer a lethal injection.

Instead, the bill would allow doctors to indirectly help people die by prescribing drugs for patients to take themselves. This procedure is known as physician-assisted suicide.

The British Government is neutral on the issue of voluntary euthanasia but has indicated that Lord Joffe’s revised bill may be given parliamentary time when it is introduced in November.

The bill is unlikely to become law but an amended version could win support from the medical community.

In another unprecedented move, the British Medical Association dropped its historic opposition to euthanasia during 2005, adopting a neutral stance on the issue.