Could Assisted Dying be Legalised?

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Assisted dying could be legalised in the UK within four years according to Andrew Mitchell MP, talking to Sky News in August 2020.

It is currently an offence in the UK for a person to encourage or assist the suicide of another. Family members and their loved ones who are suffering in the final stages of their lives are eager to take these measures and there is growing public support for legalising assisted dying. However, others are concerned that vulnerable people may be put at risk.

Andrew Mitchell MP says that “we are not looking here for a massive change…just for very, very tight reform”. Consequently, the proposals to the change in the law, which are receiving growing support among MPs, will be limited as follows:

  • to someone within six months of the end of their life, and
  • with very strong safeguards in place (i.e. with the decision being made by a High Court judge and two doctors).

Assisted dying has been legal in Belgium and the Netherlands since 2002, but it requires a doctor to be convinced that the patient’s suffering is unbearable.

Although you can travel to another country, where euthanasia is legal, to die, the fact remains that euthanasia or assisted suicide is still illegal in the UK. This can cause serious problems for those providing this assistance. They are not only at risk of being prosecuted upon their return, but they are also at risk of losing any inheritance they would otherwise have been entitled to as a result of the Forfeiture Act 1982.

Irrespective of whether assisted dying is made legal, patients who are terminally ill in the UK do have the right to refuse treatments that might extend their life (“passive euthanasia”), such as withdrawing a life support machine.

 How do you make sure your wishes are followed at the appropriate time?

If you still have capacity and the ability to make decisions, you can refuse further treatment yourself.

If you do not have capacity, then a Health and Welfare Lasting Power of Attorney or an Advance Directive (“Living Will”) can be referred to. It is worth considering having one of these put in place while you still have capacity and to make sure your wishes are carried out.

 Which is better, a Lasting Power of Attorney or an Advance Directive?

This will depend on your requirements. A Health and Welfare Lasting Power of Attorney appoints your chosen attorney(s) to make these decisions on your behalf if you are no longer able to make decisions for yourself. It needs to be registered with the Office of the Public Guardian before it can be used and this can take between 2 – 3 months, unlike a Living Will which is effective immediately.

A Living Will sets out your own decisions regarding the refusal to specific treatments, whereas with a Lasting Power of Attorney you are trusting your attorneys to make decisions in your best interests and relying on what they think you would want.

However, the problem with Living Wills is that they need to be drawn up precisely and comply with certain requirements.  It must document exactly what treatments you wish to refuse, why and in what circumstances this would apply. Living Wills can end up having no effect at the time you need them. Additionally, you might change your views, or the medical treatments that are available might change, therefore the instructions contained in your Living Will become out of date.

Lasting Powers of Attorney are much more flexible and allow your attorneys to consider the circumstances and views at the time when decisions are needed and then make decisions based on what they think you would have wanted and previous discussions they have had with you.

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