Austria’s top court decriminalises assisted dying

Helping ‘seriously ill’ people to end their lives will no longer be a criminal offence in Austria, following a judgment from the country’s top court. Humanists UK, which campaigns for legal assisted dying across the UK, has welcomed the move as a victory for reason, compassion, and empathy.

News of the decision comes just weeks after it was announced that humanist Paul Lamb has been refused permission to judicially review the UK’s laws on assisted dying – in a judgment that is thought to end the prospect of any further legal cases for the foreseeable future.

Assisted dying is now permitted for terminally ill and incurably suffering people in Canada, Belgium, Italy, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, with a similar Bill also currently going through the Dáil in the Republic of Ireland. It is also permitted specifically for terminally ill people in Colombia, ten US jurisdictions, and the Australian state of Victoria, and will soon become legal in Western Australia and New Zealand.

Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson said: 

‘We are delighted Austria has chosen to follow in the footsteps of its progressive neighbours and allow those who are incurably suffering the option of a dignified death. It cannot be right that those facing constant and unbearable suffering should be forced to continue living in a state of pain, when they have freely reached a decision to end their own life.

‘With more countries changing their laws on assisted dying, this judgment is a powerful reminder of the growing consensus favouring legal, safe, and compassionate assisted dying for both the terminally ill and incurably suffering worldwide. And it has firmly put the spotlight back on our lawmakers’ inaction.

‘At least one Brit per week now travels to Switzerland to end their life. But changing the law is overwhelmingly backed by the public, and in a recent survey half of doctors said they personally favoured legal assisted dying. The time has therefore come for the UK to stop turning a blind eye to the striking injustice of our laws. We urge the Government to clear the way for a more compassionate law by launching an inquiry into the matter.’

The landmark ruling relates to a complaint from a series of individuals, including two terminally ill people and a 56-year-old man suffering from multiple sclerosis, that the country’s blanket ban on assisted dying violated their human rights.

Under Austria’s criminal law anyone who helped someone end their life could have faced up to five years imprisonment. But on Friday, Austria’s constitutional court backed claims that the existing law was unconstitutional and decided that a blanket ban on helping others ‘violates the rights to self-determination, because this fact forbids any kind of assistance under any circumstances’. However, emphasising that the right is only protected if ‘made freely and without any influence’, the Court called upon Austria’s Parliament to ‘take measures to prevent abuse’


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at or phone 020 7324 3072 or 07534 248 596.

Read the Austrian constitutional court’s press release on its assisted dying judgment.

Wider developments

Parliament last voted on assisted dying in 2015, rejecting by 330 to 118 a private member’s bill which would not have assisted Paul, but which would have legalised assistance for those with six or fewer months left to live.

Last month, the British Medical Association (BMA) announced the outcome of its members’ survey on assisted dying. The BMA heard from almost 29,000 doctors and medical students and found that 50% personally believe that doctors should be able to prescribe life-ending drugs for patients to take themselves, with just 39% opposed to it. Asked who should be eligible for an assisted death if the law were changed, 59% felt that patients with physical conditions causing intolerable suffering which cannot be relieved should be; whereas only 24% thought patients suffering from a condition likely to cause death in six months or less should be the only people eligible.

According to the UK Assisted Dying Coalition, of which Humanists UK is a founding member, more than one person a week now travels from the UK to Switzerland for an assisted death.

A 2019 poll from NatCen found that 88% of people in the UK favour assisted dying for those who are incurably suffering, in at least some circumstances.

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaign for assisted dying.

Humanists UK is the national charity working on behalf of non-religious people. Powered by 100,000 members and supporters, we advance free thinking and promote humanism to create a tolerant society where rational thinking and kindness prevail. We provide ceremonies, pastoral care, education, and support services benefitting over a million people every year and our campaigns advance humanist thinking on ethical issues, human rights, and equal treatment for all.