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Proposals for assisted death FAQs

An independent group of experts says terminally ill people with less than a year to live should have the choice of ending their lives
WebMD UK Health News
Medically Reviewed by Dr Farah Ahmed
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5th January 2012 - An independent group of experts called the Commission on Assisted Dying says terminally ill people with less than a year to live should have the choice of ending their lives through assisted suicide. Finding out more about the proposals, and what critics say, in our FAQs.

What is The Commission on Assisted Dying?

The Commission on Assisted Dying was set up in 2010 to consider whether the current legal and policy approach to assisted dying in England and Wales is fit for purpose. It also sets out to look at what an approach to assisted dying might look like, if it were ever to be adopted in the UK.

The group includes doctors experienced in end of life care, a former police chief, clergy and members of the House of Lords, including the former Labour Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer. Some funding for the report came from Sir Terry Pratchett, the bestselling author of the Discworld series, who announced in 2007 that he has early onset Alzheimer's.

It received more than 1,200 responses from doctors, professional bodies and members of the public.

What has it concluded?

The Commission says its role is not to promote a change in the law, though it does say the current legal status of assisted suicide is inadequate and incoherent.

More than 40 cases of assisted suicide have been reported to the Crown Prosecution Service since 2009, although the Commission says many people believe some assisted suicides have been decriminalised. More than 100 people from the UK have travelled to Switzerland to end their lives at a special clinic there.

It concludes: "The current situation, while being very distressing for families and unclear for health and social care staff, also lays a deeply challenging burden on police and prosecutors, which could be eased by a new statutory framework."

It says there is a strong case for providing the choice of assisted dying for terminally ill people.

Despite being given appropriate end of life care, the Commission says a comparatively small number of people who are terminally ill experience a degree of suffering towards the end of their life that they consider "can only be relieved either by ending their own life, or by the knowledge that they can end their life at a time of their own choosing".

Hasn't the law changed on assisted suicide?

In February 2010, the Crown Prosecution Service set out new guidelines it would follow in deciding whether to prosecute in cases of assisted suicide. However, launching the new policy, Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions, said at the time that it did not change the law on assisted suicide. "It does not open the door for euthanasia," he insisted, adding: "What it does is to provide a clear framework for prosecutors to decide which cases should proceed to court and which should not."

The review was prompted by a legal campaign by Debby Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis. The Law Lords ruled that she had a right to know under what circumstances her husband would be prosecuted if he helped her travel abroad in order to end her life.

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