Assisted dying will be debated in the House of Commons today, after a petition calling for its legalisation reached the required number of 100,000 signatures.
Under the Suicide Act, 1961, it is currently a criminal offence to help someone to take their own life, punishable by up to 14 years in prison.
The most recent attempt to change the law failed in the House of Lords in April because the government did not allocate sufficient time for it to pass its various legislative stages.
Henry Marsh, one of the UK’s leading brain surgeons, who suffers from terminal cancer, has called for an urgent inquiry into the issue.
He told Sky News: “A certain number of people, including myself, fear the loss of autonomy and dignity that so often comes with death. I must have operated on hundreds of men with advanced prostate cancer which has spread to the spine. And this causes progressive paralysis.
“So a large number of men with prostate cancer die paralysed, doubly incontinent, bed-ridden. I want some choice in the matter as to how, if that happens to me, I can say enough is enough.
“I want to get it over with surrounded by my family in my own home.”
There is evidence of a striking mismatch between public opinion and that of MPs on the issue.
A YouGov poll last year found that while 73% of people thought that assisted dying should be legalised for the terminally ill, just 35% of MPs agreed.
Others argue that the answer lies not in changing the law, but in improving palliative care.
Dr Mark Pickering from the campaign group Care Not Killing said: “Many of the heartbreaking stories that we hear driving the assisted suicide debate are of people who sadly did not get the right palliative care, and did not have access to the best support at the time of their dying or their loved ones dying. We really need to fix that.”
In Scotland, Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur has introduced a bill that would allow terminally ill people to end their lives.
A number of countries have legalised assisted suicide: the Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland, Luxembourg, Switzerland, Spain, Canada and New Zealand, as well as several US states such as California and New Jersey.
Anyone feeling emotionally distressed or suicidal can call Samaritans for help on 116 123 or email [email protected] in the UK. In the US, call the Samaritans branch in your area or 1 (800) 273-TALK.