Today in Parliament, the Joint Human Rights Committee (JCHR) met with barristers and legal experts to examine human rights and assisted dying. The experts explained how the UK’s current assisted dying ban effectively forced people to end their lives much sooner than they would if they knew they would have the legal option to access assisted dying should they need it later on.
A study by the Office of National Statistics released last year showed that people diagnosed with severe health conditions are ‘considerably more likely’ to take their own lives. Almost 1,000 people with lung and heart conditions died by suicide in England between 2017 and 2020. Even more strikingly, the study found that patients with Huntington’s and motor neurone disease were considerably more likely to die by suicide. One year after a diagnosis of these degenerative neurological conditions, the suicide rate for patients was 107.7 deaths per 100,000 people.
MPs and peers were told that every single jurisdiction out of 27 where assisted dying is legal, the assisted dying care in place was fully compliant with the European Court of Human Rights.
When quizzed if incremental changes to legislation in other jurisdictions were evidence of a ‘slippery slope’ (one of the common arguments put forward by opponents of assisted dying), Dr Stevie Martin and Paul Bowen KC agreed that experts replied that in every jurisdiction where assisted dying has changed, this has been due to legal, justifiable, and democratic changes.
In his expert testimony, Paul Bowen KC said that the debate was ‘not about giving someone the right to die, it’s about giving them the confidence that when it is time they can die with dignity and enjoy the life that we do have.’
Multiple references were made to the case of Tony Nicklinson, who suffered from locked-in syndrome and had come to a clear and settled wish to die. Humanists UK supported Nicklinson in his case for the right to die in the courts. The High Court ruled that assisted dying was for parliament to decide, not for the courts. Rather than die peacefully through a legally sanctioned means, Tony instead died after refusing food and treatment shortly after losing his case.
In 2014, Paul Lamb and Tony’s widow Jane lost their case at the Supreme Court, as judges said the UK Parliament should instead be given the opportunity to reconsider the law through legislation. But Parliament has since refused to do so, particularly for cases of people incurably suffering, like Tony.
This JCHR session will feed into the Health and Social Care Committee’s inquiry into assisted dying. Last week the committee met with international experts on assisted dying who gave overwhelming evidence for a change in the law on assisted dying.
Humanists UK supports the inquiry, as a well-informed discussion on a change to the law on assisted dying in England and Wales is long overdue, and called for the inquiry to take further evidence from jurisdictions where assisted dying laws are working also for those who are intolerably suffering as well as for the terminally ill.
The committee has already published its initial findings from a public survey on assisted dying, and commented on their fact-finding trip to Oregon. The next stage of the inquiry is to hear evidence from more experts, campaigners and from those personally impacted by the current law.
Humanists UK Assisted Dying Campaigner Nathan Stilwell said:
‘The evidence presented by these legal experts today was clear – assisted dying is completely compatible with Human Rights. In fact, jurisdictions that have assisted dying laws show a level of compassion that we currently do not have.
‘People who are intolerably suffering from an incurable condition absolutely deserve the right to make choices at the end of their lives. ’
For further comment or information, media should contact Humanists UK Assisted Dying Campaigner at firstname.lastname@example.org or phone 07456200033
Read more about a decade of campaigning for the legal right to die – at home and abroad.
Read the ONS study on suicides among people diagnosed with severe health conditions.
Read more about our campaign to legalise assisted dying in the UK.
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