Health Team

Lawmakers on British island of Guernsey to vote on assisted dying bill

Posted May 15, 2018 11:14 a.m. EDT

— A small island 30 miles off the coast of France could soon become the first place in the British Isles to legalize medically assisted suicide.

Lawmakers on Guernsey, the second largest of the Channel Islands, will start debating a bill Wednesday that would eventually allow people to legally end their lives.

The bill, known as a requete, was introduced by Guernsey Chief Minister Gavin St Pier, who has championed the cause using the hashtag #mycaremychoice and who believes the question is one of basic human rights.

He wants to see legislation that would allow terminally ill people with less than six months to live to end their own lives with the help of a doctor.

" 'Human rights' on any rationale interpretation simply must include the right of the terminally ill individual to make an informed decision of [sic] the end of life choice that they want for themselves," he wrote on Twitter.

St Pier also believes that change is unavoidable: "Governments can choose to lead or they can choose to follow the will of the people; either way, giving terminally ill individuals their right to informed end of life choices is inevitable," he wrote in a tweet. "The difference is simply: when?"

The 40 lawmakers in Guernsey's Parliament -- known as the States of Deliberation -- will eventually vote on whether to "agree in principle to the development of a suitable legal regime to permit assisted dying in Guernsey."

An amendment tabled by St Pier last week in response to accusations of vagueness in the original proposal prioritizes the need to improve palliative care and capacity legislation and specifies that the process should be available only to "terminally ill adults resident in Guernsey with mental capacity and less than 6 months to live."

Implications for the UK

If the measure passes, a period of consultation will follow, during which a working group will speak with relevant groups, including members of the public, medical professionals and the UK Ministry of Justice. The group will then produce a set of recommendations for how the "regime" could be implemented.

Key questions such as the role of doctors in the process and how vulnerable individuals can be protected would be addressed in these recommendations.

Responding to suggestions that the island could become a euthanasia destination, St Pier insists that the law will apply only to local residents. However, this aspect is part of the debate, along with the other specifics of the legislation.

Whatever the outcome, there will be implications for the UK, where medically assisted suicide is illegal, despite a number of recent campaigns.

As a British Crown Dependency, Guernsey can set its own laws, but these must be approved by the Privy Council, a group of senior Westminster politicians who assess the future impact of the legislation on the UK.

The process will probably trigger a renewed debate in the UK, where a bill on assisted dying was rejected by MPs in 2015. Debate at the time was heated, and opinions on the island seem equally divided.

'A real threat to some'

Though a number of lawmakers are backing St Pier, others are concerned about the open-ended nature of the proposals and the potential for exploitation.

"Assisted Dying might be welcomed -- and consciously and thoughtfully chosen -- by many, but I believe it will pose a real threat to some," politician Emilie Yerby wrote on his website. "Among those will be people at their most frightened, at their most vulnerable, and at their physically weakest. Given the importance of those two duties of government -- to err on the side of life, and to protect the disadvantaged -- I do not think a wise government would choose to introduce it."

Views are equally split beyond the political arena. Although a number of charities including Dignity in Dying are backing the bill, many of the island's Christian leaders have spoken out against it.

Last month, 53 representatives of Guernsey's churches signed a letter arguing that the proposal is "misplaced" and "a danger for us as a community."

Other faith leaders have shown their support for the bill, including Jonathan Romain, rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue on the UK mainland, who has campaigned on the island ahead of the vote, and former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey, who told ITV News that he did not believe it is "unchristian" to enable people to end their suffering.

A small number of countries that have legalized forms of physician-assisted suicide, including Japan, Belgium and Switzerland. Several US states also have legislation that allows it.