Euthanasia in the United Kingdom

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Euthanasia is illegal in the United Kingdom.

In 1935, Lord Moynihan and Dr Killick Millard founded the British Voluntary Euthanasia Society (later known as EXIT and now as Dignity in Dying)[1] which produced A Guide To Self Deliverance giving guidelines on how a person should commit suicide. Publication was delayed amid controversy because of the Suicide Act of 1961 which states that the legal system can allow up to 14 years in prison for anyone that assists in a suicide. Therefore, it was unclear whether the Society could be held accountable for assisting in suicide because of its publication.[2]

In 1980, the Scottish branch (now called Exit) broke off from its original society in order to publish How to Die with Dignity,[3] which became the first publication of its kind in the world.[2]

Advance directive[edit]

In Wales, people may make an advance directive or appoint a proxy under the Mental Capacity Act 2005. This is only for an advanced refusal of treatment for when the person lacks mental capacity and must be considered to be valid and applicable by the medical staff concerned.[4]

Assisted suicide[edit]

England and Wales[edit]

Section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961, as originally enacted, provided that it was an offence to "aid, abet, counsel or procure the suicide of another" and that a person who committed this offence was liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding fourteen years.[5] That section has amended by the Coroners and Justice Act 2009. Although it is an offence to assist a patient in committing suicide, many doctors still assist their patients with their wishes by withholding treatment and reducing pain, "according to a 2006 article in the Guardian".[2] This, however, is only done when the doctors feel that "’death is a few days away and after consulting patients, relatives or other doctors".[2]

Thus far, 92 Britons have gone abroad (often to organisations such as Dignitas in Switzerland) for an assisted suicide. No family member has been convicted of helping them although some have been charged and have had to wait before hearing the charges have been dropped.[6] Because of the inconsistencies between the law and prosecution Debbie Purdy launched a case to clarify whether or not her husband would risk being prosecuted if he helped her travel to a Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to die.[7] Purdy's case ended on 30 August 2009 with the decision that the Director of Public Prosecutions had to clarify how the Suicide Act 1961 is to be enforced in England and Wales.[8] The DPP issued guidelines in February 2010 setting out situations where a prosecution was not in the public interest, and therefore unlikely to happen. Two factors which point towards a prosecution not being in the public interest are that the victim had reached a voluntary, clear, settled and informed decision to commit suicide; and that the suspect was wholly motivated by compassion.[9]

Double effect doctrine[edit]

While assisted suicide remains illegal in the United Kingdom, it is not uncommon for a patient’s death to be hastened and for there to be no legal ramifications attached to the physician that caused the death. Indeed, Lord Goff ruled in Airedale NHS Trust v Bland that doctors who intentionally do everything necessary and appropriate to relieve a patient’s pain and suffering, even with the foresight of possible terminal consequences, are considered legally protected when a death is hastened. [10]

Attempts at reform[edit]

There have been various attempts to introduce legislation to change the legal situation regarding assisted suicide in the United Kingdom.

In 1931 Dr C. Killick Millard, the President of the Society of Medical Officers of Health, proposed a Voluntary Euthanasia (Legislation) Bill for incurable invalids.[11] The first attempt to reform the law in England was in 1936 by Lord Arthur Ponsonby and supported by the Euthanasia Society. In 1969, a Bill was introduced into the House of Lords by Lord Raglan. In 1970, the House of Commons debated the issue. Baroness Wootton introduced a Bill to the Lords in 1976 on the matter of "passive euthanasia".[12]

Between 2003 and 2006 Lord Joffe made four attempts to introduce bills that would have legalized assisted suicide and voluntary euthanasia - all were rejected by Parliament.[13]

In June 2012, the British Medical Journal published an editorial arguing that medical organisations like the British Medical Association ought to drop their opposition to assisted dying and take a neutral stance so as to enable Parliament to debate the issue and not have what Raymond Tallis described as a "disproportionate influence on the decision".[14]


In January, 1936, as King George V lay comatose on his deathbed, his doctor injected him with fatal doses of morphine and cocaine for the purpose of hastening his death so that it could be announced in the morning newspapers rather than the less appropriate evening journals.[15]


Assisted dying in Scots law might constitute murder, culpable homicide or no offence depending on the nature of the assistance. The Member's Bill proposed by MSP Margo MacDonald, was rejected by a majority of members of the public who choose to give comment on the issue to the Scottish Parliament subsequently, a majority of MSPs including the first minister Alex Salmond voted against the bill, defeating it in its first stage.

Child euthanasia[edit]

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics launched an enquiry in into critical care in foetal and neonatal medicine, looking at the ethical, social and legal issues which may arise when making decisions surrounding treating extremely premature babies.

Euthanasia advocates[edit]

In addition, the following organisations advocate assisted dying or euthanasia:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Whiting, Raymond (2002). A Natural Right to Die: Twenty-Three Centuries of Debate. Westport, Connecticut. p. 41. 
  2. ^ a b c d e McDougall, Jennifer Fecio; Martha Gorman (2008). Contemporary World Issues: Euthanasia. Santa Barbara, California: ABC-CLIO. pp. 70–73. 
  3. ^ Mair, G.B.; Scottish Exit (Edinburgh, Scotland) (1980). How to Die with Dignity. Scottish Exit. Retrieved 8 April 2015. 
  4. ^ Johnston, Carolyn; Liddle, Jane (2007). "The Mental Capacity Act 2005: a new framework for healthcare decision making". Journal Medical Ethics. 33 (2): 94–97. doi:10.1136/jme.2006.016972. PMC 2598235Freely accessible. PMID 17264196. 
  5. ^ "Don't jail my husband if he helps me to die, pleads MS sufferer". The Independent. 12 September 2008. 
  6. ^ Roberts, Yvonne (13 October 2008). "Yvonne Roberts: The UK must get off the fence and talk about dying". The Guardian. London. 
  7. ^ <>
  8. ^ "Debbie Purdy case 'not a green light to assisted suicide' says Baroness Finlay". The Telegraph. 30 Jul 2009. 
  9. ^ "The CPS : Assisted Suicide Policy". Retrieved 8 April 2015. 
  10. ^ Airedale NHS Trust v Bland [1993] 1 ALL ER 821; LexisNexis
  11. ^ Daily Mirror 17 October 1931, p2 "Doctor's Plea for the Right to Easy Death"
  12. ^ Foreword by the Earl of Listowel to Voluntary Euthanasia: Experts Debate the Right to Die eds. A. B. Downing and Barbara Smoker, ISBN 0-7206-0651-9, p. 5
  13. ^ "Assisted Dying Bill - latest". BBC News Online. 
  14. ^ "'Neutrality' call on assisted dying". Birmingham Post. 14 June 2012. Retrieved 14 June 2012. 
  15. ^ Joseph Lelyveld, “1936 Secret is Out: Doctor Sped George V’s Death,” New York Times (November 27, 1986).
  16. ^ Sick patients 'need right to die' BBC News, 15 July 2008
  17. ^ Irvine, Chris (2 Aug 2009). "Sir Terry Pratchett: coroner tribunals should be set up for assisted suicide cases". The Telegraph.