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Government sets up free vote on assisted-dying Bill

14 March 2014


GOVERNMENT proposals that would allow MPs and peers to vote with their consciences on changing the law on assisted suicide have received a mixed reception.

Opinion is divided over the issue, but political observers believe that there is a small but growing parliamentary majority that supports the idea.

The decision to allow a free vote was announced last weekend, when a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Justice described it as "an issue of individual conscience and a matter for Parliament to decide rather than government policy".

Under the Suicide Act 1961, helping a person to end his or her life carries a maximum 14-year sentence. In 2010, however, the then Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer QC, issued guidelines stating that anyone "acting out of compassion" was unlikely to be charged. Since then, about 90 cases have been examined, and no one has been prosecuted.

An assisted-dying Bill is already before the Lords. It would permit two doctors to prescribe a dose of lethal drugs to a terminally ill patient who had fewer than six months to live.

Such a plan would have enabled Diane Pretty, who suffered from motor neurone disease, and took her case about ending her life to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, to hasten her death. But it would not have applied to Tony Nicklinson, a sufferer from "locked-in" syndrome, as he was not terminally ill (Comment, 13 July 2012).

Peers will vote on it in the summer, and, if approved, it will progress to the Commons before the end of the year.

The Minister for Care and Support in the Department of Health, Norman Lamb, supportsthe idea. He told Sky News: "Can we really be comfortable with asituation where people, acting out of compassion for a loved one whois dying, are left uncertain asto whether they will face prosecution?"

But the Care Not Killing alliance said: "There is nothing liberal about wanting to end the lives of the terminally ill, the disabled, and the elderly. What we should be discussing is how we ensure equal access to good-quality medical care and life-saving and preserving drugs."

The Catholic Bishops' Conference of England and Wales has produced a leaflet comprising a Q&A on assisted dying, entitled "Sense and Nonsense". It highlights that "the Church teaches that deliberately ending or helping to end someone else's life, even if that person may have requested it, is wrong. Those who take someone else's life take to themselves the power of life and death, which ultimately belongs to God." The Tablet reports that it is to be sent to every parish in the coming weeks. 

Leader comment

Question of the weeK: Do you believe the law on assisted dying should be relaxed?

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