August 2009: Should the law be changed to allow doctors and families to assist the terminally ill if they choose to end their life?

Thank you so much to everyone who took part in my most recent e-consultation, on the sensitive subject of assisted suicide.

Many of you replied to say you struggled with this issue to come to a conclusion, because it is so difficult to balance the wishes of those terminally ill patients who want to choose when they die with proper safeguards to prevent people being pressurised into such a decision.

I’d like to express particular thanks to those who shared their personal experiences of terminal illness and the deaths of loved ones – they serve as a very poignant reminder that this is not a theoretical, abstract issue, but one involving real people and families who are faced with heartbreaking decisions.

The question was:

Should the law be changed to allow doctors and families to assist the terminally ill if they choose to end their life?

More than 190 people responded:

  • 31% of people answered NO
  • 69% of people answered YES

Common arguments against allowing assisted dying were:

  • It is against religious beliefs
  • It is too open to abuse
  • It will foster a culture where the ill and disabled see themselves as a burden
  • We should instead improve end of life care and provide adequate counselling and support to those who have a terminal illness

Many of those who voted ‘no’ have great sympathy for those who wish for an assisted death, and although they can not support the legalisation of assisted dying, they do feel it is inappropriate for families to be prosecuted.

Common arguments for allowing assisted dying were:

  • Everyone should have the right to choose when and how they die
  • Helping someone to die with dignity is more merciful than letting them suffer
  • Those who choose to end their life should feel able to have their family around them at the end without the worry of prosecution
  • There are many conditions where suffering cannot simply be controlled with painkillers – quality of life will inevitably decline to intolerable levels

Virtually everyone who was in favour of allowing assisted dying stipulated that there must be very strict safeguards to prevent abuse. Some spoke of their own degenerative illnesses, which although manageable at present, would eventually worsen, and that when the time came for them, they would wish to choose an assisted death.

This e-consultation did have a clear outcome; most of you feel that assisted dying should be decriminalised. It seems very cruel to threaten to prosecute families who have been through a very difficult time.

It is vital that those who are very ill are not made to feel like a burden, but are supported to live the remainder of their lives as painlessly and comfortably as possible. Our hospices play a vital role in that support, which is why I fought against the proposed cuts to St Margaret’s Hospice in Clydebank.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has now issued interim guidelines which would clarify whether families will face prosecution if they assist their relative to die, and I was pleased to hear that he is holding a public consultation, which may lead to changes in the final draft of the policy.

Find out more and have your say

This only applies to England and Wales, however, and I was disappointed that Elish Angeolini, the Lord Advocate, has ruled out giving any policy guidance that would apply north of the border.

Once again, thank you for taking part in my e-consultation.

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