What is the legal position on assisted suicide/euthanasia?

What is meant by assisted suicide and euthanasia?

Also known as ‘mercy killing’, euthanasia is the putting to death of another individual to end their suffering from a painful medical condition or illness. Assisted suicide is where someone helps or encourages the person who wants to die to take their own life.

What does the law in the UK say?

The intentional killing of an individual – even as an act of mercy killing – is treated as murder or manslaughter by the law. Under the Suicide Act 1961, it is not illegal to take your own life. However, under section 21 it is a criminal defence to “aid, abet, counsel or procure the suicide of another or an attempt of another to commit suicide”.

Therefore, both euthanasia and assisting someone in their own suicide are illegal in the UK and are criminal offences.

Could I face prison?

In certain instances, on conviction of murder or manslaughter following a mercy killing, the individual could face a mandatory life sentence of imprisonment.

On conviction of assisting a suicide under section 21, an individual can face up to 14 years’ imprisonment.

Active and passive euthanasia

What is the difference between active and passive euthanasia?

Active euthanasia means an individual or the medical professionals (or carers) do something deliberately that causes the person’s death. This means, for instance, a lethal injection or smothering the patient with a pillow. Active euthanasia falls firmly within the legal definition of murder and manslaughter.

Passive euthanasia takes place when nothing is done, directly resulting in the patient’s death. For example, the medical professionals may withdraw feeding tubes or turn off life support machines, or withdraw drugs that are keeping the patient alive.

This distinction between active and passive euthanasia is vital because, since the Tony Bland case in 1993, passive euthanasia that involves omissions (failures to act) is not illegal under the Suicide Act. Criminal charges would not therefore normally follow a case of ‘passive euthanasia’.

Medically assisted suicide

What is meant by medically assisted suicide?

Medically assisted suicide is where a doctor or other medical professional assists a suffering patient to commit suicide, possibly by providing them with lethal drugs to enable them to take their own life (suicide).

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For more information on:

  • Are the courts likely to convict people for assisted suicide?
  • Does the Human Rights Act have any part to play?
  • Other jurisdictions
  • Is euthanasia legal in any other countries?