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Inquiry launched into law on assisted dying

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An independent commission has been launched to look into whether the law needs to be changed on assisted dying.

The Commission on Assisted Dying will be chaired by former Lord Chancellor and justice secretary Lord Falconer and will review evidence from experts and the public to consider what system, if any, should exist to allow people to be assisted to die and whether any changes in the law should be introduced.

The commission, which is being partially funded by the author Terry Pratchett, will publish its findings in 12 months’ time in December 2011.

Included in its 12 members is Celia Grandison-Markey, chair of the Confederation of Black and Ethnic Minority Nurses, Midwives and Health Visitors, and interim chair of the Patients Association.

Also on the panel are former General Medical Council president Sir Graeme Catto, former Care Quality Commission chair Dame Barbara Young and Sheffield University Professor of Palliative Medicine Sam Ahmedzai.

Though assisted dying is illegal in the UK, it is possible for people to have assistance to end their lives by travelling abroad or with non-medical assistance from a friend or family member without anyone being prosecuted. 

This occurred in cases such as the 23 year-old rugby player Daniel James and that of Michael Bateman who was not charged for assisting his wife’s death in October 2009.

To date, over 150 Britons have travelled abroad to die and no one has been prosecuted for accompanying or assisting them. Current legal practise differentiates between amateur assistance to die by loved ones – which is likely, but not certain, to be forgiven by the criminal justice system – and assistance by healthcare professionals which is likely to result in prosecutions. 

The Commission on Assisted dying will seek clarity on current legal ambiguities and recommend what, if any, changes of the law and practice should be implemented.

In a speech launching the commission, Lord Falconer said issue was one of “great ethical and practical importance”.

He said: “We approach the task, each one of the commissioners, determined to come up with a report of quality which will be respected as an objective, dispassionate and authoritative analysis of the issues and as providing a reliable way forward.”

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