In June 2016, Belfast hosted the British Medical Association (BMA) Annual Conference.  One controversial topic debated was the BMA’s position on assisted suicide.  The issue centered on whether the BMA should adopt a stance of being “neutral” rather than “opposed” to assisting a person ending their own life.

The past few years has seen a lot more discussion on this topic, which is not surprising given that most of us will live a lot longer than our grandparents, and as a society we are much more alert and sensitive to individual rights and personal choice.  

It is not illegal to commit suicide but it is illegal to assist a person in committing suicide.  We are all familiar with heartrending stories of gravely ill people who would like to be able to choose their time of going if their suffering becomes intolerable to them.  This notion of ending your own or someone else’s life deeply offends those who believe in the sanctity of life.  However, for others, the idea of being compelled to endure extreme pain or an existence with virtually no quality of life can seem intolerable. For some, it is unconscionable to watch someone suffering without assisting.  To others, it is unconscionable to assist. 

Inevitably, the medical profession is on the front line of this debate as it has the means and opportunity to end a life in a controlled manner.  The leading voice in the BMA debate was Dr Claire Gerada who is a former chairperson of the Royal College of Physicians. She touched on her own personal experience of watching her father’s death.   She said she “would want a choice to have an assisted death in a safe local and legal system surrounded by those who love her”.  Dr Gerada advocated that the BMA should adopt a neutral position rather than oppose this possibility.  Sir Richard Thompson is one of a number of eminent doctors who take the view that helping patients to die should become part of the job of a Medical Practitioner in certain circumstances. 

Should assisted suicide become lawful, the fear is that some vulnerably ill people could feel under pressure to end their lives prematurely.  There is no doubt that a legal system which contemplates the legality of assisted suicide would need to build in strong protections to ensure that those who are physically or mentally vulnerable, or both, would be identified and afforded very considerable protection against any abuse. The Canadian Government has recently introduced legislation allowing mentally competent adults who have a serious terminal condition and who are “suffering intolerably and for whom death is reasonably foreseeable” to be assisted in their death, using drugs provided by physicians which can be administered either by a family member or by themselves.  A number of protective measures incorporated in the new law include a requirement that each case be assessed by two independent doctors. 

At the BMA Conference, the strength of opposing opinion was such however that the outcome of the debate was that the BMA will remain opposed to assisted suicide. 

At present, our law DOES allow individuals to express a wish not to be resuscitated in certain specified and limited circumstances.  It is open to an adult to make a Living Will (also known as an Advance Directive.)  An Advance Directive cannot insist upon medical treatment being given but it can specify if and when medical treatment should be withheld to allow death to occur.  An Advance Directive should not be entered into lightly and should be discussed with both a medical practitioner and experienced lawyer to be fully aware of the implications, and also the practicalities of where this document may be held to ensure that it is available to medical practitioners should circumstances set out in the Advance Directive come to pass. 

Whether there is a change in the law on this issue in the future or not, there can be no doubt that it is a worthwhile exercise to take steps in considering what your future wishes may be should you become ill.   A lawyer experienced in this field can offer you specialist advice and assistance in this area should you require it. 

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