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).

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 because they involve grief stricken relatives who believed they were doing what was in the best interests of their loved ones. No UK doctor has yet been convicted of assisted suicide despite the fact that many of them claim to be involved.

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 be released from serious and often unbearable pain amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment contrary to Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights; and in violation of the right to privacy and family life (Article 8).

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 under the prevailing laws in the UK.

In a nine-year legal fight, Tony Nicklinson asked the court to change the law on euthanasia and assisted suicide. Following his death, the case was continued by his wife right up to the European Court – but it was decided that Parliament needed to change the law.

The Assisted Dying Bill was debated by Parliament in 2015 but MPs rejected overwhelmingly to a change in the law.

Other jurisdictions

Is euthanasia legal in any other countries?

Euthanasia is legal in the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg. It is also legal in the US states of Washington and Oregon.

Switzerland recognises and allows assisted suicide by doctors and other medical professionals so long as it is not self-serving. Euthanasia itself is not legal in Switzerland.

Article written by...
Nicola Laver LLB
Nicola Laver LLB

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A non-practising solicitor, Nicola is also a fully qualified journalist. For the past 20 years, she has worked as a legal journalist, editor and author.