Suicide Act 1961 was updated by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. It is
illegal in the UK to assist a suicide. However, the Director of Public
Prosecutions (DPP) has discretion over whether a prosecution would be in the public
The law was challenged in 2002 by Diane Pretty. She wanted her
husband to assist her in committing suicide without risk of prosecution. The UK
courts and the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) refused. The CHR said
that she has a legal right to life but no ‘right to death’.
Debbie Purdy claimed the DPP was infringing her human rights by failing to
clarify how the Suicide Act was actually enforced. The House of Lords asked for
clarification from the DPP. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) published a
‘Policy for Prosecutors in Respect of Cases of Encouraging or Assisting
Suicide’.The policy states that
prosecution is less likely if “the victim had reached a voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision
to commit suicide; the suspect was wholly motivated by compassion”.
The Commons praised the guidance but did
not try to change the law. As a result, the individual must now take action on
the assumption they might not be
prosecuted if their motives and context are deemed acceptable by the CPS.
the Scottish Parliament rejected the End of Life Assistance (Scotland) Bill. This would have made it legal toprovide ‘end of life assistance’.In September 2015, a bill on Assisted Dying
Bill was heavily rejected in the House of Commons. This would have permitted
assisted suicide, but only for someone who is already terminally ill.
Historically, some civilisations
have accepted suicide as an honourable way to avoid suffering, including shame
or dishonour. Roman, Greek and Japanese cultures permitted it. Pliny the Elder
thought the gods provided poisonous plants to facilitate it. Caecina Paetus and
Mark Anthony used it to avoid Caesar’s wrath. However, Pythagoras, Plato, Socrates and
Aristotle questioned who ‘owned’ the life in question - the citizen, the state
or the gods.
There are many ways to seek death and approval can depend
very much on circumstance and motivation. All major religions prohibit suicide,
although the passive method of starving to death is permitted to Hindu yogis
and Jain monks. Buddhist monks have used self-immolation (setting themselves
alight) as a form of protest. Jewish practice forbids suicide, although Jewish
Zealots in 74CE chose to die at their own hand rather than surrender to the
Romans. Islam also forbids suicide, although both Islam and Christianity accept
the idea of martyrdom as a route to heaven.
In A.D. 563, the Christian Council of Braga officially
condemned suicide. St Augustine thought too many Christians sought martyrdom
too willingly. In most of Europe suicide became illegal and those guilty of it
were not buried in hallowed ground. It remained
illegal in England and Wales until 1961. The Catholic Church still
argues that human life belongs to God and we have no right to destroy it. Slowly, attitudes turned from seeing suicide
it as a crime to seeing it as an act of desperation. The Samaritans were
founded in in 1953 and high rates of attempted suicide now are treated as social
problems requiring a sympathetic response. It is socially acceptable to
use drugs to remove pain when a person is dying, but illegal to use them to end
life to avoid further pain.
The Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg allow assisted suicide but conditions vary (3b p8, p23-24; 3c). In some
cases the ‘assister’ must be medically qualified. It is also legal in Colombia and some US states (Oregon,
Washington, Montana). The
Northern Territory in Australia permitted assisted suicide but the national parliament later overruled their
in general means seeking a quiet or easy death and modern usage assumes that is
to avoid intolerable suffering. There are several types of euthanasia, described
euthanasia involves taking a life without permission, much as we put down a
sick animal. That is not what this topic is about.
euthanasia involves a rational choice to die. It can be a solitary act of
suicide, an act which one is assisted by others or a desire to be put to death
by others (when physically incapable of acting).The
topic is about whether to allow another person to help with suicide, not about
allowing them to take another life on their own, even with permission.
assisting might be a friend, relative or a medically qualified person.
Non-voluntary euthanasia means the person whose life is ended did not consent at the time
(they might be in a coma) but they had previously said they would wish to die
under those circumstances. Involuntary
euthanasia means the person who dies has never expressed a wish to
die. Someone else made the decision for them.Active euthanasia means intervening
to bring about death. The topic is not about non-voluntary or involuntary
euthanasia means not acting to prevent a death, e.g. starving yourself or not
giving food or medicine or resuscitation to a patient.This can be legal under existinglaw, if a patient or next of kin agrees to a
notice that says “Do Not Resuscitate” (DNR).
assisted suicide would involve a doctor prescribing a fatal drug a patient takes
voluntarily. This might be permitted by
the options under debate.
Palliative care is medical intervention to relive
suffering rather than offer a cure. Whether at home or in a hospice, it assumes
that death will occur, probably soon, and all we can achieve is to make it as
painless as possible.
The present position in the UK is that any act that
would assist suicide is against the law, but the law may not be enforced if the
agent’ motives are acceptable to the Criminal Prosecution Service (CPS). Each
citizen has to weigh their own actions by the CPS guidelines then act, wait,
and hope not to be arrested.
the time of writing (July 2014) Lord Falconer’s Bill has had its second reading
in the House of Lords and will move on to the committee stage. However, even if
passed, it would only legalise assisted suicide for the terminally ill. The
question explored below is whether UK law should specifically allow its citizens
to help another person to end their life as an act of compassion, whether they are
terminally ill or not.
Contact Open Up if
you want to know the sources for any part of this background or for the
arguments that follow.