On 3 April, French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to draft a law in regards to its citizens' right to die by the “end of summer”, after the citizens’ assembly called for legislation to be changed.
The assembly was made up of 184 randomly appointed French citizens, compiled according to factors like age, gender, education, place of residence and occupation in such a way as to accurately reflect the wider French population. The youngest participant in the assembly was 20, and the oldest 87.
The citizens’ assembly started debating the issue in December, with its conclusions handed to the French President the first weekend in April. According to the report, some 76% of the citizens’ assembly said they were in favour of allowing patients the right to some form of assistance in their death.
Macron said that any changes made would have to “guarantee the expression of free and enlightened desire” to die, and that medically assisted deaths could only be permitted when the patient in question suffers from an incurable “psychological and physical” condition.
He did not state whether euthanasia or assisted suicide would be permitted in France, or if the bill would include both. The French national council of doctors, l'Ordre des médecins, has expressed its opposition to involving doctors in helping people die.
Macron also said that the French parliament would have to agree on any assisted suicide or euthanasia legislation changes - the move comes after Macron was heavily criticised for appearing to bypass French parliamentary democracy after putting through a pension reform without a vote in the National Assembly, prompting protests around the country.
How is assisted suicide different to euthanasia?
The NHS defines assisted suicide as the “act of deliberately assisting another person to kill themselves”. So, for example, “if a relative of a person with terminal illness obtained strong sedatives, knowing the person intended to use them to kill themselves, the relative may be considered to be assisting suicide”.
Euthanasia, on the other hand, refers to “the act of deliberately ending a person’s life to relieve suffering”.
The NHS offers the following example: “It could be considered euthanasia if a doctor deliberately gave a patient with a terminal illness a drug they do not otherwise need, such as an overdose of sedatives or muscle relaxant, with the sole aim of ending their life”.
What are the laws in the UK?
In England and Wales, both euthanasia and assisted suicide are illegal. Assisted suicide is illegal under the terms of the Suicide Act (1961) and can be met with a punishment by up to 14 years’ imprisonment - trying to take your own life is not a criminal act.
Depending on the circumstances, euthanasia is regarded as either manslaughter or murder, the maximum penalty of which is life in prison.
Much like England and Wales, euthanasia is illegal in Northern Ireland and could be prosecuted as murder or manslaughter. “Assisting or encouraging” another person’s suicide is also illegal under the terms of the Criminal Justice (Northern Ireland) Act 1966, which extends the Suicide Act 1961 to Northern Ireland.
Dignity in Dying Scotland explains that there is “no crime of assisted suicide” in Scotland.
It says: “It is the view of the Scottish Courts that providing assistance to a person with the intention of ending his or her life would not normally attract a prosecution for culpable homicide, so long as the person taking their own life was acting voluntarily. The Courts have also said that the act of helping and accompanying somebody to Switzerland who wished to end their life “would not be criminal if prosecuted in Scotland”.”
In line with the rest of the UK, euthanasia in Scotland is illegal and could be prosecuted as murder or manslaughter.
What are the laws around the world?
Physician assisted suicide is legal under specific circumstances in some parts of the world, including Austria, Belgium, Canada, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, parts of the US (California, Colorado, Hawaii, Maine, Montana, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Vermont, Washington and Washtington DC), and Australia (New South Wales, Queensland, South Australia, Tasmania, Victoria and Western Australia).
For many people, the first place that you think of when it comes to assisted suicide is Switzerland. Since 1942, Switzerland has allowed assisted suicide provided that the motives are not selfish.
Switzerland is one of just a handful of places around the world which allows assisted suicide for non-resident foreigners, and, according to Dignity in Dying, over 350 Britons have travelled to Switzerland to end their lives at Dignitas, a Swiss nonprofit organisation which provides physician assisted suicide to people with terminal illness or severe physical or mental illness.
When life is difficult, Samaritans are here – day or night, 365 days a year. You can call them for free on 116 123 or visit samaritans.org to find your nearest branch.