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The Right to Assisted Dying in the UK

The Right to Assisted Dying in the UK

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Published by: f_torres9 on Dec 13, 2012
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The Right to Assisted Dying in the UK
Ali Raza
 
End of life issues are one of the more complicated and controversial matters in medical law.Assisted Suicide is one of the issues
1
, currently a contentious one in many countries. Muchink has been expended by legal commentators and academics regarding the legal, ethicaland wider issues surrounding this hotly debated topic. The underlying question of thedebate is: if a terminally ill person decides that they wish to end their life, is it acceptable forothers to assist them?
 
This would normally take the form of a doctor administering a lethalinjection, which would end their life painlessly. To answer this question, this paper will bedissected into three sections: the first section will examine and comment on the current lawon assisted suicide. The second section will discuss the ethical and moral issues. The thirdsection will consider evidence from abroad. In turn the essay will try to engage into a debateas to the arguments for and against it, to signify the deeply rooted division withinacademics, as to its legalization. In doing so it will try to reach a reasoned conclusion.
Section I
Under section two of the Suicide Act 1961, assisted suicide is illegal. S2 (1) states that it is anoffence to aid, abet, counsel, or procure another to commit or attempt suicide, punishableup to a term of 14 years.
2
S2 (4) states that no case shall be instituted without the consent of the Director of public prosecutions.
3
This act is not short of critics, Richard Tur believessubsection 2(4) is
‘merely to prevent prosecutions for assisted suicide which are not in the
 public
interest’ 
; he goes on to say that
‘it is a le
gislative attempt to avoid injustice without 
too seriously compromising sanctity of life’ 
.
4
 There are two reasons why people may need assistance in suicide; firstly, they may bephysically incapable of arranging their suicide. Secondly, they may lack the knowledge orexpertise needed in a quick and painless death.
5
The cases of 
Pretty 
6
 
and
Purdy 
 
lie at theheart of the assisted suicide debate
.
The distinction between the two was that, in
Pretty 
sheasked for immunity for her husband, whereas
Purdy 
was asking for prosecutor policy, so thatshe could make an informed decision about her life. The
Pretty 
case highlighted the
1
Euthanasia is the other main issue.
2
Suicide Act 1961, S2 (1)
3
Ibid, S2 (4)
4
Richard. HS Tur, Legislative techniques and human rights: The sad case of Assisted suicide (2003)Criminal Law Review 3-12
5
Emily Jackson, Medical Law, Text, Cases, and Materials (OUP Oxford 2006); Pg 916
6
R. (On the application of Pretty) v Director Of Public Prosecutions (2002) 1 AC 800 HL.
 
7
 R (on the application of Purdy)
v
Director of Public Prosecutions [2009] UKHL 45 
 
uneasiness surrounding the law. The Uncertainty continued until the
Purdy 
case, whicheventually led to the development of theDirector of PublicProsecutions guidelines. KeirStarmer QC, DPP, said, what it does is to provide a clear framework for prosecutors todecide which cases should proceed to court and which should not.
8
 Proponents for legalization argue there exist Inconsistencies and double standards in thecurrent law. For example a doctors
‘ 
use of drugs to reduce pain will often be justified notwithstanding that this will hasten the moment of death
’ 
.
9
This is known as the doctrine of double effect. What is the difference between prescribing drugs that will ease a personssuffering but kill them in five years and prescribing drugs which lead to death instantly? Bothsituations lead to death, yet the latter is prohibited. This doctrine is also in conflict withordinary principles of criminal law. The House of Lords in
Woolin
10
 
held
 
that a person has therequisite
mens rea
for murder if they engage in conduct, which is virtually certain to causedeath. Williams believes,
 
‘when a result is foreseen as certain, it is the same as if it wereintended or desired’ 
.
11
However, a doctor may dispense drugs to ease a persons suffering,knowing fully well that it will hasten death. That does not mean that the doctor intends ordesires the
person’s
death despite knowing that it is a virtual certainty. Does this mean thatthere are problems in basic criminal law itself?Wilkinson sheds further light on this troubled area, he states that no one knows what isgoing on inside the doctors head when he is administering the drugs
. Therefore, ‘the
 acceptance of this doctrine might make it possible to kill patients intentionally whilst 
intending that there death is an unintended side effect’.
12
 It is a well-established principle that a competent patient has the right to refuse treatmenteven if their refusal will lead to their death.
13
The issue is as Pattinson states,
‘ 
a doctor, whocomplies with a valid refusal of treatment,
(
i.e
.: stopping a ventilator or food supply)
is not viewed as actively ending or assisting i 
n the ending of a patient’s life
. In contrast a doctor 
8
DPP guidelines can be accessed at the CPS website, alongside Keir Stramers statement.http://www.cps.gov.uk/news/press_releases/144_09/ (last access, 03/01/2012)
9
Lord Donaldson in Re J (Wardship medical treatment) (1991) 2 WLR 140,
10
R v Woolin (1999) 1 AC 82 HL
11
Glanville Williams, Sanctity of Life and the Criminal Law (Faber London 1957) 286
12
Stephen Wilkinson
, ‘Palliative care and the doctrine of double effect’, in Donna Dickenson, Malcolm
 Johnson, and Jeanne Samson Katz (eds), Death, Dying and Bereavement, (2nd Ed Sage London 2000)299-302.
13
 
See, Lord Goff’s judgment,
In Airedale NHS Trust v Bland (1993) AC 789Also see, British Medical Association guidance to doctors; Withholding and withdrawing lifeprolonging treatment: guidance for decision making (2
nd
Ed 2001) paras 9.1-9.3Also see, Ms B v An NHS Trust EWHC 429

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