Assisted suicide laws criticised
Health ministers have joined calls for a fresh look at relaxing the law against assisted suicide, with one calling it "ridiculous and appalling" that terminally-ill people were forced abroad to take their own lives.
Tory MP Anna Soubry reopened the fraught right-to-die debate in an outspoken interview with The Times just days after being appointed a junior minister in the Department of Health (DoH) in David Cameron's reshuffle.
And her Liberal Democrat colleague Norman Lamb, who was shifted to the health brief at the same time, said he believed there was "a strong case" for the present law to be reconsidered.
Their interventions sparked strong responses on both sides of the argument, with opponents including the president of the British Medical Association, warning any change in the law could put vulnerable people at risk.
But ministers also faced a call to go further still from the widow of locked-in syndrome sufferer Tony Nicklinson who died a week after he lost his legal bid to end his life with a doctor's help. Ms Soubry indicated that she would be opposed to any change that resulted in doctors being told they could kill someone.
Jane Nicklinson, whose lawyers say she has a "compelling" case to be allowed to continue her husband's legal fight, welcomed Ms Soubry's willingness to "stick her neck out" but said rights should not be restricted to the dying.
Ms Soubry said there needed to be more "honesty" about the consequences. She said: "I think it's ridiculous and appalling that people have to go abroad to end their life instead of being able to end their life at home. The rules that we have about who we don't prosecute allow things to happen but there's a good argument that we should be a bit more honest about it."
The DoH insisted the Government had no plans at present to legislate on the issue, which was a matter of individual conscience for MPs and could only be decided by parliament.
Since new guidelines for prosecutors in assisted suicide cases were brought in in February 2010, anyone acting with compassion to help end the life of someone who has decided they cannot go on is unlikely to face criminal charges.
But assisted suicide remains a criminal offence in England and Wales, punishable by up to 14 years in prison, and individual decisions on prosecution are made on the circumstances in each case.