The Future of Assisted Suicide in the UK

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By Ella Watharow

You may have heard of the tragic case of Tony Nicklinson, who was left with Locked-In Syndrome following a stroke in 2005, when his life became a “living nightmare”. In 2012, the High Court rejected Tony’s appeal to legally end his life, at which point he began to starve himself until he died from pneumonia six days later. 

Assisted dying is illegal in the UK, and the Nicklinson ruling reinforced this. And yet, in 2019 alone, 42 Brits travelled to Dignitas in Switzerland to end their life. This, combined with Matt Hancock’s recent announcement that travelling abroad for assisted suicide does not constitute a breach of lockdown rules, creates a disparity between law and reality that Trevor Moore, chair of My Death My Choice, refers to as “absurd”. One individual, who does not wish to be named, recalls how after travelling with their quadriplegic father who wished to end his life in Switzerland, they were faced with immediate police questioning. They say that under the current law, families “cannot properly focus on grieving for the person that they have lost until an investigation has been concluded, which can take many months”. Ultimately the majority of cases are not taken forward, with 139 out of 162 cases between 2009 and 2020 not being prosecuted. However, the obscurity of the law adds unnecessary difficulty to a situation that is already incredibly painful.

This begs the question: why has the law not been changed? Although public opinion is overwhelmingly in support of assisted suicide, the official policy of the British Medical Association (BMA) opposes “all forms of physician-assisted dying”. Additionally, major organisations such as Caring not Killing and Not Dead Yet provide active opposition to a change of law, citing concerns about safeguarding and the potentially increased pressure for ill and disabled people to end their lives. 
Nonetheless, many, like Trevor Moore, remain optimistic that there is an “increasing acceptance [of the need for legal change]” in the UK. With the BMA’s assisted suicide policy up for review in 2021, only 39% of its members currently oppose a reform of the current law, and change seems to be on the horizon. Whilst some view this prospect with fear and concern, others welcome it, asserting that a change in policy will return a sense of dignity and control to thousands of people around the country.

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