What is the legal position in the UK in relation to Euthanasia?

Euthanasia

What is meant by Euthanasia?

Euthanasia is typically meant to mean the killing of a person for their own good (or another good) and is typically used to end their suffering. It deals specifically with the situation where someone is in great pain due to an illness or a disease, often seen as the best course of action to end their pain of suffering.

What does the law in the UK say?

The intentional killing of an individual regardless of whether it is at their request is a criminal act under UK law treated as either murder or manslaughter and in certain instances carries with it a mandatory life sentence of imprisonment.

The Suicide Act 1961

Suicide and Assisted Suicide

The Suicide Act 1961 decriminalised suicide in England and Wales meaning that it is not an offence to take you own life, but provided the following section regarding the offence of assisted suicide.

Section 21 of the Suicide Act 1961 makes it a criminal offence for a person to do the following:

“Aid, abet, counsel or procure the suicide of another or an attempt of another to commit suicide.”

Sentencing

Will I be given a prison sentence?

Anyone who is found guilty of assisted suicide under Section 21 of the Suicide Act 1961 will be provided with a maximum prison sentence of 14 years.

Active and Passive Euthanasia

What is the difference between active and passive euthanasia?

Passive euthanasia is said to be an assisted suicide which involves ¡°omissions¡± which can be taken to mean the removal of life support equipment as nothing further can be done to improve the condition of that person on the life support machine.

Since a case in 1993 this has been held to not fall within the definition of assisted suicide from Section 21 of the Suicide Act 1961.

Active euthanasia is where someone has actively taken measures to end someone’s life. This falls squarely within the criminal offence of assisted suicide regardless of whether that person gave their consent for the act to take place.

Medically assisted suicide

What is meant by medically assisted suicide?

Medically assisted suicide is whereby a doctor or another medical professional assists their patient who is suffering greatly to commit suicide by providing them with something often prescription medicine to enable them to commit suicide.

Again there is a key distinction between active and passive euthanasia as a doctor who stops a life support machine will not be convicted of assisted suicide.

Are the courts likely to convict people for assisted suicide?

Juries are often reluctant to convict in a case of assisted suicide as on many occasions they involve grief stricken relatives who feel that they are doing what is in the best interests of their loved ones.

Currently no UK doctor has been convicted of assisted suicide despite the fact that many of them claim to do it.

Does the Human Rights Act have any part to play?

Since the inception of the Human Rights Act 1998 many campaigners have claimed that the denial of a right to release yourself from serious and often unbearable pain amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment which is forbidden by Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights and is also a violation of privacy and family life which is protected by Article 8 of the Convention.

Furthermore there have been arguments that the UK law amounts to discrimination considering the legality of suicide itself and that it violates an individual’s inherent dignity and right to die.

The Human Rights Act and the European Convention on Human Rights may recognise an individuals’ right to life but does not recognise their concurrent right to death.

There have often been much Parliamentary opposition to the current UK law concerning assisted suicide but as yet there has been no fundamental change in the law.

Other Jurisdictions

In which countries is Euthanasia Legal?

In 2002 both the Netherlands and Belgium legalised Euthanasia. Switzerland also recognises and allows assisted suicide by doctors and other medical professionals but euthanasia itself is not legal in that country.