The reason for addressing the assisted dying debate at this point in time is that the legal and ethical status of assisted dying in our society continues to be an unresolved public policy issue. The Commission for Assisted Dying starts from the premise that, while assisted dying may be illegal in the UK, it remains possible for those with the financial and physical ability to seek assistance to die, for instance by travelling overseas or by engaging non-medical assistance at home. The Director of Public Prosecutions’ policy has effectively decriminalised ‘amateur’ assistance to die by distinguishing between compassionate and malicious actions. To date, over 150 Britons have travelled abroad to die and no one has been prosecuted for accompanying them or assisting them. However, these guidelines also differentiate between amateur assistance to die by loved ones (which is likely to be forgiven by the criminal justice system), and professional assistance by healthcare professionals, which is likely to result in prosecution.
The policy therefore creates the expectation that people must rely on friends and family for assistance, with all of the practical risks that this might entail. The policy also fails to resolve ethical questions such as whether there are some circumstances that might justify somebody wishing to end their life (for example if the person is terminally ill) and others that might not (for example if somebody is experiencing temporary and curable depression).
The Commission on Assisted Dying is an independent body that will reach conclusions based upon the evidence brought before it. It has been set up with funding provided by Bernard Lewis and Terry Pratchett. Demos are providing the research secretariat and administrative support.
The Commission is to act entirely independently and the Commission alone will be responsible for its conclusions. In particular, the Commission will be independent from Demos and the funders.
How was the Commission on Assisted Dying formed?
Demos responded to a tender from two private individuals, Terry Pratchett and Bernard Lewis, who are funding the Commission. The campaigning organisation Dignity in Dying brokered the relationship between Demos and those funding the Commission. Demos accepted the invitation to host the Commission with the firm understanding that neither the funders nor Dignity in Dying would have any further involvement in the running or outcomes of the Commission.
How were commissioners appointed?
Demos approached Lord Falconer to chair the Commission and Lord Falconer subsequently invited the other Commission members to join. Lord Falconer did not invite anyone who takes a firm principled stance on the issue of assisted dying, but rather commissioners were invited on the basis of having relevant expertise to bring to the issue and are committed to approaching the issue open-mindedly, with the intention of coming to their conclusions on the basis of the evidence put before them.
Who is giving evidence to the Commission on Assisted Dying?
The Commission has issued a public call for evidence. Individuals or groups with particular expertise have been invited to give evidence to the Commission at public hearings.
Demos’s role as research secretariat to the Commission is to ensure that the broadest possible range of evidence is put before the Commission for its consideration. The Commission will publish a list of everybody who has been invited to give evidence to the Commission on the Commission’s website. This list will also be included in the Commission’s final report.
What is the scope of the Commission on Assisted Dying?
The purpose of the Commission is to investigate what system, if any, should exist to allow people to be assisted to die and whether it might be possible to introduce sufficient safeguards within such a system to prevent abuse and ensure that vulnerable people could not be pressured to choose an assisted death. It will consider the impact that a regulatory regime for assisted dying might have on individual people and society more broadly, with a particular focus on practice in palliative care. To this end the Commission will consult with a very wide range of stakeholders to examine their views on this issue and the evidence that they can bring to the discussion and will form its views on this basis.
Will the final report be peer reviewed?
We intend for the Commission’s final report to be put through a full peer-review process, as is standard practice for all research that Demos conducts and publishes.