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A significant step towards legalising assisting suicide?

The sensitive and controversial topic of assisted suicide has frequently appeared in the media ever since Tony Nicklinson launched a legal battle in 2010 challenging legislation that made ‘mercy killings’ unlawful. Under the 1961 Suicide Act it is a criminal offence to help somebody to take their own life and carries a sentence of up to 14 years in jail.

Nicklinson suffered a stroke that left him paralysed from the neck down and only able to communicate by blinking. He described his life as ‘undignified and intolerable’ but due to his condition he required the help of a doctor to take his life.

Nicklinson was unsuccessful in his attempt to legalise assisted suicide but his wife continued the battle with the help of Paul Lamb, a man suffering from ‘locked-in’ syndrome. The Court of Appeal subsequently upheld their decision as you may remember from our previous blog.

Gathering Momentum

Support has continued to grow for the call to amend the law and in some opinion polls as many as 75% of people surveyed said they would welcome the change. These people will be relieved to hear that a new Bill, drawn up by Lord Falconer, to legalise ‘assisted dying’ is to be put before the House of Lords. Under it doctors will be allowed to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to terminally ill patients that will help them to die.

Norman Lamb, a Liberal Democrat and the minister responsible for care for elderly and disabled people, is one of the first to publically announce that he would vote in favour of the proposed legislation and several other senior ministers are of the same opinion.

This appears to mark a considerable move towards legalising assisted suicide as the Bill has attracted a lot more public governmental support than previous proposals and debates on the subject.

The campaign group Dignity in Dying, has pointed out that finally the “vast majority of public support is reflected by the cross party support in the House of Lords”.

Not Everyone Agrees

However, unsurprisingly the move towards this legislation change hasn’t been met with same support from certain groups of people. Doctors, disability campaigners, churches and some MPs have said that relaxing the law could leave vulnerable people at risk.

Richard Hawkes of the disability charity Scope is worried that legalising assisted suicide could send out a distressing message that “if you’re disabled it’s not worth being alive, and that you’re a burden.” Others have said that giving doctors this power has the potential to undermine the highly valued patient-doctor relationship that has existed for so long in Britain.

Parliaments’ Predicament

It is Parliament that ultimately has the task of changing this contentious area of law and, seemingly, any action that they take will be met with support and opposition in equal measures. The results of the vote on Lord Falconer’s Bill will be eagerly awaited by many.
Peers are expected to vote on the Bill in the coming few months.

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