What is Euthanasia?
Euthanasia comes from Greek, meaning 'pleasant death'. It typically refers to the killing of a person for their own (or another) good, usually to end their suffering.
While virtually no-one in modern society would condone involuntary euthanasia, 'mercy killings' and 'assisted suicides', where the person killed consents to his or her fate, are the subject of heated international debate.
An important distinction in UK law exists between active euthanasia and passive euthanasia. Since the Bland ruling of 1993, 'assisted suicides', which involve 'omissions' that are principally the removal of life-saving care, are not illegal. However, actively taking action to end another's life is illegal, even with consent.
Medically assisted suicide, where doctors help patients to die or actually kill them, is legal in a number of European countries, including Belgium and the Netherlands.
Euthanasia is a highly complex issue involving difficult questions regarding the role of modern government and the rights of individual citizens. The central premise of those supporting legalisation of euthanasia is the right of individuals, often in unbearable pain, to choose where and when they will die. The arguments against the legalisation of euthanasia highlight the utilitarian role of governance and the inability of any government to support acts violating the right to life of its citizens.
In law, euthanasia has no special legal position in the UK. Instances described as euthanasia are treated as murder or manslaughter. However, the Suicide Act 1961 makes a specific offence of 'criminal liability for complicity in another's suicide', while declaring suicide itself to be legal.
In practice, however, the prosecution of euthanasia in the UK is distinct from other cases of unlawful killing - the consent of the Attorney General to prosecute is an explicit requirement of the Act, and sentencing is influenced by the often desperate and harrowing circumstances of individual cases.
The law has been reviewed since 1961, but has not been substantially changed, despite regular attempts by backbenchers in Parliament.
Since the Human Rights Act 1998, however, campaigners have claimed that the denial of a right to release oneself from unbearable pain amounts to inhuman and degrading treatment (Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights), is a violation of privacy and family life (Article 8), amounts to discrimination given the legality of suicide itself, and that an individual's inherent dignity and 'right to die' is violated by the current legislation.
Jurisprudence, however, does not recognise a parallel right to die implied by the right to life.
The subject of Euthanasia is a highly controversial and divisive topic, raising an array of sophisticated moral, ethical, social, philosophical, legal and religious concerns.
Many of these were aired in the case of Diane Pretty, who was dying of motor neurone disease and wanted her husband to end her life without being prosecuted for aiding and abetting suicide. Her case led to a high profile legal and public debate on the issue, as her husband first applied to domestic courts (up to the House of Lords), and then to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) for judicial review of the refusal to give him immunity from prosecution. Had the case been successful, it would have effectively struck down the legal ban on assisted suicide.
Mrs Pretty was unsuccessful because the domestic courts, in recognition of the complex moral considerations at stake, deferred to the democratic will of parliament as enshrined in the legal text. The ECHR applied the EU equivalent, the 'Margin of Appreciation', and rescinded from passing judgment on the issue in 2002.
There are two main groups of arguments deployed against euthanasia.
The first group is religious: many religions, notably Christianity, do not recognise a right to die, believing life to be a divine gift. Christians also regard suicide as a sin.
The second group relates to the requirement of consent. The capacity of a terminally ill patient to give informed consent for their own killing is questioned. It is also suggested that doctors and relatives may press people into accepting euthanasia against their will and for reasons not related to their welfare.
In the US, Dr Jack Kevorkian - known as 'Dr Death' - successfully challenged the law on euthanasia, avoiding prosecution for conducting medically-assisted suicides across the country for 10 years. In a landmark 1999 decision, however, he was sent to prison for 10 to 25 years for administering a lethal injection.
Lord Joel Joffe has been campaigning since 2003 to allow assisted dying for the terminally ill. His Private Members' Bill 'Patient (Assisted Dying)' was introduced to the House of Lords in February of that year.
In November 2004 Lord Joffe's new 'Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill' to legalise assisted dying received its first reading in the House of Lords and in November 2005 an amended version of the bill was introduced to the Lords. But in May 2006, following a highly publicised seven hour debate, peers voted by 148 to 100 to reject the bill.
The on-going campaigns to legalise euthanasia or assisted dying, some of which are attracting the support of various celebrities, have raised particular concerns amongst people with disabilities and their families and supporters. They fear the calls for legalisation will intensify and say they feel particularly vulnerable in the current economic climate with cuts in vital public services on which they depend.
Now the disabilities group Not Dead Yet UK (NDYUK) has launched its own Resistance Campaign and is calling on all MPs to sign the 'Resistance Charter 2010' declaring that they will support palliative care and independent living services and maintain legal protection for all people who are terminally ill or disabled.
Countries which have enacted legislation on assisted dying:
Belgium - The Belgian Act on Euthanasia was passed in May 2002. The law allows adults who are in a "futile medical condition of constant and unbearable physical or mental suffering that cannot be alleviated" to request voluntary euthanasia.
Luxembourg - In February 2008, the Luxembourg Parliament approved a Law on the Right to Die with Dignity. This allows a person who is suffering unbearably from an illness, and is mentally competent, to request medical assistance to die.
The Netherlands - The Netherlands introduced assisted dying legislation in 2002. Patients who have an incurable condition, face unbearable suffering and are mentally competent may be eligible for voluntary euthanasia or assisted dying.
Oregon (USA) - The Oregon Death with Dignity Act has been in place for 10 years. It gives terminally ill, mentally competent people the option of an assisted death.
Switzerland - Voluntary euthanasia is forbidden in Switzerland. However, Article 115 of the Swiss Penal Code exempts people who assist someone to commit suicide, if they act with entirely honourable motives.
Source: Dignity in Dying - 2011
"I believe that decisions about the timing and manner of death belong to the individual as a human right. I believe it is wrong to withhold medical methods of terminating life painlessly and swiftly when an individual has a rational and clear-minded sustained wish to end his or her life."
Professor A C Grayling, Dignity in Dying Patron
"Disabled and terminally ill people fear that calls to legalise assisted suicide and euthanasia are likely to intensify. Our concerns are heightened by the current economic climate and calls from politicians from all parties for cuts in public services.
"We, and our families, rely upon such services to live with dignity.... We face a bleak situation as calls for assisted suicide to be lawful are renewed, whilst vital services are being withdrawn or denied."
NDYUK's 'Resistance Charter 2010: Protecting the lives of disabled & terminally ill people.'