MPs to examine law on assisted dying

MPs are to debate the law on assisted dying in March, for the first time in more than 10 years, thanks to a decision by the Commons Backbench Business Committee.

They will not be talking about the report of the Commission on Assisted Dying, led by the former Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, which reported this week, but about the current operation of the law.

The existing rules are the result of a case brought by Debbie Purdy, a terminally ill woman, who in 2009 won a ruling from the law lords requiring the director of public prosecutions (DPP) to set out whether her husband would be committing an offence if he accompanied her to the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland, to end her life.

In 2010, the DPP produced guidance to prosecutors on cases where someone had encouraged or assisted suicide, listing factors which should weigh for or against prosecuting. The point about this is that the guidelines more or less amounted to law - and law made neither by Parliament nor by judges.

The senior Conservative MP Richard Ottaway believes that Parliament should debate the guidelines and either approve or reject them; and the motion he plans to put before the Commons in March would ask the government to consult on putting them into law. He wants the debate to be held in March to give all the groups and individuals concerned about assisted dying a chance to prepare - and the exact date will depend on which days are allocated by the government for backbench debates in that month.

But, once again, the Backbench Business Committee has helped an individual MP bring an ultra-sensitive issue to the floor of the Commons.

And I can't think of an issue which deserves the scrutiny of law-makers more than this one.

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