Sir Graeme Catto: Lives in hands of courts where right to die is concerned

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TWO patients with locked-in syndrome who asked the High Court in England to consider their requests for medical assistance to die have this week lost their cases.

The current law is clear in that it forbids assistance to die, but in England and Wales compassionate acts of assistance to die are often forgiven by the law. This was clarified the Director of Public Prosecutions, which made it clear that amateur compassionate assistance is likely not to result in prosecution, but assistance from healthcare professionals will lead to prosecution. Scotland’s laws are slightly more complicated – there is no specific “assisted suicide” offence, but those who assist someone to die may face prosecution under the law of culpable homicide.

Dignity in Dying does not campaign for assisted suicide for non-terminally ill people or for voluntary euthanasia whereby the patient’s life is directly ended by another. We campaign for the choice of assisted dying for terminally ill mentally competent adults. While both legal cases fall outside of the remit of our campaign they raise difficult issues and it’s important that these cases are heard. It is crucial, however, that parliamentarians don’t simply leave this to the courts.

Ultimately, our parliaments must consider the arguments and decide whether our laws are appropriate for today’s society. With Margo MacDonald seeking change in Scotland, we hope that Westminster will also have the opportunity to consider a better way forward.

We are in the process of consultation on a draft Assisted Dying Bill ( It will end in November.

• Sir Graeme Catto is chair of Dignity in Dying