Assisted dying to be debated by MPs – what is it and where is it legal?

Supporters and protestors have convened outside Westminster Hall (Picture: PA)

Ahead of a debate in Westminster Hall today about the ‘right to die’, campaigners both for and against the bill have gathered outside the venue.

Assisted suicide is currently banned in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, with a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.

But campaigners are fighting for the ‘right to die’, with Dame Esther Rantzen – who has stage four lung cancer – pleading with MPs to attend the assisted dying debate.

She told Radio4 today: ‘Whatever their view, whether they support a change in the law or not, it is so important that they hear the evidence from around the world because other countries are ahead of us.’

MPs will debate assisted dying after a petition, backed by Dame Esther, reached more than 200,000 signatures.

Esther Rantzen has campaigned for the ‘right to die’ (Picture: Shutterstock)

What is assisted dying?

The term assisted dying has different meanings depending on the stance of an organisation or person.

Assisted dying allows a person with a terminal condition the choice to control their death if they decide their suffering is unbearable, according to pro-change campaigners Dignity in Dying.

But the campaign group Care Not Killing uses the terms ‘assisted suicide’ and ‘euthanasia’ and says the focus should be on an improvement to palliative care, rather than legislative change.

It argues assisted dying could ‘place pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives for fear of being a financial, emotional or care burden upon others’ and argue the disabled, elderly, sick or depressed could be especially at risk.

What are the ethical arguments for assisted dying?

Dame Esther Rantazen has stage four lung cancer (Picture: Getty)

The movement to legalise assisted dying argues that it allows for a more dignified death, with less pain.

Pro-change campaign group Dignity in Dying said terminally ill people and bereaved relatives will also be among those gathered, while the organisation My Death, My Decision described it as a ‘significant moment in the campaign for a compassionate assisted dying law’.

The petition for a debate, which gained more than 200,000 signatures, stated: ‘Terminally ill people who are mentally sound and near the end of their lives should not suffer unbearably against their will.’

High profile supporters of the movement to legalise assisted dying include Dame Prue Leith and Broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby.

Who is against assisted dying and why?

Critics of assisted dying have argued that the ‘right to die’ could become a ‘duty to die’ if made legal.

Charity CARE issued a statement ahead of the debate today in Westminster, with Louise Davies MBE, Director of Advocacy and Policy at CARE, saying: ‘The evidence of assisted suicide’s dangers is undeniable and has not changed since past debates at Westminster.

‘If anything, it has grown, given a litany of disturbing reports from other countries. No ‘safeguard’ could ever rule out mistakes, abuses, and expansion of legislation beyond that which is initially agreed.

‘When injustices do occur, marginalised groups in society are worst affected. It’s also clear that the ‘right to die’ would become a ‘duty to die’ for those who feel they are a burden, or who lack the support they need.

‘We’d urge MPs to stand up for the vulnerable and oppose it.’

Could England legalise assisted dying?

Some doctors have said the practice is unethical (Picture: PA)

The short answer is – we don’t know.

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer has said he is ‘committed’ to allowing a vote on legalising assisted dying should the party win the next general election.

Downing Street has previously said it would be up to Parliament whether to again debate legalising assisted dying.

In Scotland, it is not a specific criminal offence but assisting the death of someone can leave a person open to being charged with murder or other offences.

A Bill was introduced in Scotland in March – the third time members of the Scottish Parliament will have considered the issue – with two previous attempts to change the law defeated.

Which countries allow assisted dying?

Dignity in Dying says more than 200 million people around the world have access to some form of legalised assisted dying.

These countries include Switzerland, which has the famous Dignitas facility, Australia, Canada, Spain, Colombia, and 11 states in the US where it is known as ‘physician-assisted dying’.

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