Q&A: Assisted suicide

Drugs (generic) A panel of experts believes there is a "strong case" for a change in the law

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A group of experts have called for a change in the law to allow assisted suicide.

They have argued that the current system is incoherent and needs to change.

But the panel - the Commission on Assisted Dying - acknowledged that any new arrangements would have to be carefully regulated to protect the vulnerable.

What does the current law say?

The 1961 Suicide Act makes it an offence to encourage or assist a suicide or a suicide attempt in England and Wales.

Anyone doing so could face up to 14 years in prison.

The law is almost identical in Northern Ireland.

There is no specific law on assisted suicide in Scotland, creating some uncertainty, although in theory someone could be prosecuted under homicide legislation.

But despite this, scores of UK citizens have travelled to Dignitas in Switzerland to end their lives - and no relative who has helped them has faced prosecution.

Wasn't the system changed last year though?

There was no change in the law, but the director of public prosecutions did set out the factors which would be taken into consideration when deciding if someone would face prosecution for helping someone to die.

He was asked to do this by the Law Lords after a multiple sclerosis sufferer argued that she had a right to know if her husband would face charges for helping her to go abroad to end her life.

The factors listed included whether the victim had reached a "voluntary, clear, settled and informed" decision.

There was also particular emphasis on the motivation of the suspect. They would be expected to have acted "wholly compassionately" and not for financial reasons, the director said.

The idea was that it would give people who were asking their loved ones to help them die an indication of whether they would then face charges.

However, the director stopped short of saying he would offer guarantees as the individual circumstances of each case would still need to be investigated.

What does the commission call for?

It says there is a "strong case" for change.

The panel highlighted the fact that the legal system was effectively turning a blind eye to some cases of assisted dying and argued it would be better to have a clear set of guidelines under which assisted dying could be permitted.

They said it should only be available to those who are over 18, have less than 12 months to live, were acting voluntarily and have the mental capacity to make such a decision.

This would rule out dementia patients - as in the latter stages of the disease their mental capabilities would be considered insufficient to take such a decision.

But it would mean people with cancer, who have say nine months to live, would be able to apply for an assisted death.

They would then have to be assessed by two independent doctors to ensure they met the eligibility criteria.

So will the law be changing then?

No. The commission was not set up by government and, therefore, carries no official weight. The government has already said there are no immediate plans to change the law.

In fact, it was established and funded by campaigners who have been calling for a change in the law.

Because of this some groups, including the British Medical Association, refused to take part, arguing it was not independent enough.

Instead, the report will be used to add weight to the campaign to get the law changed.

There have already been several attempts to legalise assisted suicide, but these have been rejected.

The most recent, in 2006, was defeated in the House of Lords by 148 votes to 100.

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