The Channel Island is set to consider taking its first steps towards legalising assisted dying. But the details are more complex than you might thinkby Theodore Stone / May 16, 2018 / Leave a comment
The right to die remains one of the most socially and politically controversial debates within our society. The number of failed legal cases, pleading for the right to die on individual terms, are near-countless. No matter how many have campaigned for a change in the law on assisted suicide, none have yet borne fruit in Britain.
This may be about to change.
In a surprising turn of events, the Channel Island of Guernsey is set to consider taking its first steps towards legalising assisted dying, via a requête (the equivalent to a private members bill) backed by the island’s senior-most politician, alongside six of his colleagues.
If the island’s People’s Deputies (MPs) vote in favour of the now-reduced legislation, it is expected that a working party would be set up to develop ways of making assisted dying work in Guernsey—but without a set deadline, with the island’s President of the Policy and Resources Committee (the equivalent to Chief Minister) and primary supporter, Gavin St. Pier, admitting that the process could take “years.”
Nonetheless, he remains adamant that there is “pretty strong evidence that there is public support for this.”
The decision to support the legislation was shaped by his father’s death from cardiovascular disease nine years ago. Speaking to the Huffington Post, he recognised that it “wasn’t a death he would have chosen for himself. He very clearly wanted to be in control and of course he wasn’t.”
However, the Committee itself will not be supporting the legislation, owing to the lack of outlines for funding and logistics.
In response, St. Pier made a radical turnaround on 10 May, asking for proposals that the States’ approval of the requête lead to the acceptance of assisted dying ‘in principle’ to be dropped.
His original vision for the legislation mirrors that used by the State of Oregon. Oregon’s law, which has been in effect since 1997, allows a citizen to end their life through the voluntary self-administration of lethal medications, which are prescribed to them by their physician.
Although Guernsey is part of the British Isles, and thus held under “territories for which the United Kingdom is responsible,” the island is independent of the United Kingdom when it comes to enacting legislation, and hence is able to largely skirt around much of the Suicide Act 1961. Under the current law, assisting in an act of suicide is punishable by up to 14 years imprisonment.
However, given the nature of the island’s autonomy, which exists under the Queen’s Privy Council, concerns have been raised that the Council could withhold Royal Assent from the bill.
In turn, the President of Guernsey’s Home Affairs Committee, Mary Lowe, has suggested that islanders would still be subject to punishment by UK courts if they were involved in assisted dying, thanks to the extra-territorial reach of the Act.
Both of these concerns have been dismissed by Lord Falconer, the former Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice and an advocate for assisted dying.
In a letter to St. Pier, he described any possibility of the Privy Council acting to withhold Royal Assent as having “no precedent,” whilst UK courts acting against its practice would be an “abuse of process,” owing to the distinction between Guernsey and UK laws.
A diversity of opinion
Nonetheless, the Guernsey Branch of the British Medical Association (BMA), is opposed to these measures. In a statement, they argued that a focus on “end of life care plans” should be prioritised. To further complicate matters, Doctors in Guernsey must be registered with the General Medical Council, a body which classifies Assisted Suicide as a criminal offence.
The Guernsey Disability Alliance has also spoken out in opposition, citing, amongst other concerns, a lack of clarity.
This does not mean that doctors themselves are opposed to the idea. A recent survey of 733 doctors on doctors.net.uk found that 55 per cent agreed or strongly agreed with the case for assisted dying, with 43 per cent opposed and 2 per cent of no opinion.
Neighbouring islanders also appear to support the bill. A poll run by Jersey’s Bailiwick Express found that, out of 1,053 islanders, 90.6 per cent of them would support assisted dying in Jersey.
Church Leaders in Guernsey and its diocese are also fiercely opposed to the bill, with Philip Egan, the Bishop of Portsmouth whose diocese includes Guernsey, urging Catholics to “speak out against this proposal.”
Conversely, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, has spoken in favour, stating his belief that assisted dying would not be “un-Christian.” Actor Sir Patrick Stewart and restauranteur Prue Leith have also given their support.
What does the UK think?
Both of the UK’s Parliamentary Houses have hosted debates on Assisted Dying in recent years.
In 2014, the aforementioned Lord Falconer tabled an Assisted Dying Bill in the House of Lords, which, in spite of passing its second reading, ran out of time due to the General Election.
Another attempt was made in the House of Commons a year later when the Labour MP Rob Marris introduced a bill based on Falconer’s proposals to the House of Commons. A free vote was granted, but only 118 MPs voted in favour, to 330 against.
Because the Suicide Act 1961 only applied to England, Wales, and the Channel Islands, suicide has never been illegal in Scotland. However, there is a lack of certainty relating to its consequences.
The “End of Life Assistance Bill,” brought forward by the late Independent MSP Margo MacDonald, attempted to bring the concept into law in 2010 but was rejected 85-16. A second attempt was staged in 2015, but, once again, failed to break.
Countries that have legalised Assisted Dying almost always do so as stringently as possible.
In The Netherlands, 4 per cent of all deaths are through assisted dying. Since its passage into legislation in 2001, it can only be administered by doctors in cases of “hopeless and unbearable” suffering. Belgium, who followed suit a year later, legislates under similarly stringent guidelines.
Switzerland, perhaps the most famous example, only permits assisted suicide through non-selfish motives by legal omission. Any instances that are found to be self-motivated carry severe penalties.
More recently, Canada legalised assisted dying in 2016. Colombia legalised the practice the year before after its constitutional court ruled in favour of euthanasia in 1997, and South Korea brought assisted dying into law in the February of this year.
Physician-assisted dying is also legal in eight jurisdictions within the United States: California, Colorado, DC, Hawaii, Montana, Oregon, Vermont and Washington.