Views split as doctors, public and Dignitas weigh in on Jersey assisted dying plans

The island is set to become the first place in the British Isles to legalise assisted dying after politicians agreed it in 2021. Credit: PA

Jersey is a step closer to legalising assisted dying with the government today publishing the results of a three-month consultation on the issue.

It received nearly 1,400 comments from residents, medical professionals, and even the prominent assisted dying clinic, Dignitas, on how exactly the process should be legalised and enacted.

Of the 902 responses to an online survey, 48.45% agreed with allowing people with a terminal prognosis - with a life expectancy of 12 months or fewer - to end their own lives while 45.01% opposed people with degenerative conditions being eligible, leaving 6.54% undecided on the issue.

In November 2021, the island's politicians voted in favour of the principle of allowing assisted dying in certain cases:

  • where someone is over the age of 18; and

  • has been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and has around six months left to live; or

  • have an incurable physical condition, resulting in unbearable suffering that cannot be relieved; and

  • have a voluntary, clear, settled, and informed wish to end their own life; and the capacity to make that decision.

The consultation was originally due to take place last summer, but was delayed "because of the Queen's death".

If approved by politicians next year, the Channel Island would become the first place in the British Isles to legalise euthanasia.

While an earlier consultation asked for peoples' general views on whether or not assisted dying should be legalised, this focused on the government's suggested means of how it may be legalised - including the safeguards in place.

Opinion was divided on the idea of restricting assisted dying to just people with a terminal prognosis, with a life expectancy of 12 months or fewer:

While there was no overall preference, 91% of those who supported assisted dying voted 'yes', while 92% of those who opposed it voted 'no'. Credit: Government of Jersey

Of the respondents who supported assisted dying, many cited reasons like a person's suffering or quality of life, autonomy or right to make a decision about their own life.

One islander said: "My dad died of cancer four years ago at the Jersey Hospice, they were amazing but the pain relief given did not work towards the end and we saw my dad distressed and in much pain, this was no way to die, his death was not peaceful."

Dignitas said: "No one wishes to die. But, people wish to not continue suffering. If their suffering could be alleviated, if their medical condition could be resolved, they would continue living.

"In fact, assisted dying is about alleviating suffering and for this to provide a legal and safe framework which an individual can choose to make use of."

British MPs Karin Smyth and Kit Malthouse co-chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Choice at the End of Life.

They said: "Our outdated law on assisted dying discriminates between those who can and cannot afford an assisted death in Switzerland; criminalises grieving relatives who support their loved ones to exercise control over their deaths; and forces a small but significant number of dying people to end their lives before they are ready in lonely and sometimes violent ways.”

Karin Smyth and Kit Malthouse co-chair the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Choice at the End of Life. Credit: PA

Not everyone who responded to the consultation was supportive.

Some worried legalising assisted dying would be a "slippery slope", and vulnerable people may be coerced or placed "under pressure" to end their life.

Over half of the opposing responses raised concerns that people may feel pressured into ending their lives to avoid being a burden to their families or wider society.

One islander said: “Changing the law to allow euthanasia or assisted suicide will inevitably put pressure on vulnerable people to end their lives for fear of being a financial, emotional or care burden upon others.

"This would especially affect people who are disabled, elderly, sick or depressed.”

A retired GP in Jersey said legalising assisted dying would "fatally damage the relationship of trust between a doctor and patients".

An overwhelming majority of respondents said health professionals should have the right to refuse to assess someone's suitability for euthanasia if they object to the principle:

78.6% of people supported the idea that doctors should be able to opt out if they object for religious, ethical or moral reasons. Credit: Government of Jersey

Of the respondents who expressed a preference, most felt Jersey should make its assisted dying service free at the point of use to ensure everyone who wanted to end their lives with dignity was able to.

However, others argued that as primary care is not free in Jersey - with islanders having to pay for GP visits - assisted dying should also be paid for by the patient. Some suggested access could be means tested.

Most people felt Jersey's assisted dying service should be free to ensure nobody is barred access. Credit: Government of Jersey

Jersey's government says the responses will help them to 'refine' the draft proposal which will be published in December 2023.

An ethics review is due to take place this summer, with the island's parliament - the States Assembly - expected to vote on it in February 2024.

The island's Health Minister, Karen Wilson, explained the next steps: "Assisted dying is a sensitive subject on which public and professional opinion is often very divided, as illustrated by the differing views expressed by those who responded to the consultation.

"For this reason, the Council of Ministers has agreed that the proposals considered by the States Assembly later this year should be further informed by specialists with a background in medical ethics and law, who hold a range of views on assisted dying.

"This external review will seek to identify the ethical and moral considerations around assisted dying, including those raised in the responses to the consultation."

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