The assisted dying debate

Nearly 300 Britons have travelled to Zurich to die with the help of the Swiss suicide group Dignitas.

Most have done so without any publicity. But cases like that of Jeffrey Spector, a 54-year-old father of three who had an inoperable tumour on his spine, reignite the debate about whether assisted dying should be legalised in Britain.

In the last session of Parliament, the Assisted Dying Bill, got further than any previous attempt to change the law in England and Wales.

The Bill, introduced by the former Labour Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer, ran out of time before the election.

Lord Falconer said he would enter the ballot for private members bills after the Queen's speech but told the BBC's World at One: "If it's not selected, that will make entirely chancy whether or not it's possible to pursue the bill in the Lords.

Lethal prescription

"It's very odd that Parliament may be deprived of the opportunity of debating this important issue. Whatever view you take about the issue, I think everybody agrees Parliament should be debating it."

The bill would give those with have less than six months to live, who are of sound mind and a settled opinion, the right to a lethal prescription of drugs.

Two doctors would have to agree and their decision would be reviewed by a High Court judge in each case.

In Scotland, MSPs will vote on Wednesday on the first stage of the Assisted Suicide (Scotland) Bill.

This would allow a lethal dose to be prescribed to those with terminal and life shortening conditions where the individual regarded their quality of life as unacceptable, with no prospect of improvement.

The lower age limit in England and Wales would be 18, in Scotland it would be 16.

Terminally ill

Neither bill would have helped Jeffrey Spector in the short term, as his condition is not said to have been immediately life threatening.

But campaigners say changing the law would give people like him the reassurance that they could "die with dignity" in their own country at a much later point.

Mr Spector said in an interview: "I am going too early because of the law in the UK."

Dignitas does not restrict assisted deaths to the the terminally ill.

In 2008, Dan James, a 23-year-old paralysed former rugby player died with the help of Dignitas.

Mr James, who had played rugby for England Under-16s and had been tipped as a future star of the game, was paralysed from the chest down after an accident in training.

In 2006, Dr Anne Turner ended her life in Zurich - the retired doctor had a progressive and incurable degenerative disease.

Dr Turner and her three children invited the BBC to travel with them as part of a campaign to change the law.

I was in Zurich to witness her last day and remember her telling me that she had felt compelled to travel to Switzerland to die while she was still capable of acting independently.

Her case became the subject of a BBC drama "A Short Stay in Switzerland" starring Julie Walters.

This issue remains highly divisive - provoking impassioned feelings on both sides of the debate.

Bond of trust

Opinion polls suggest the public support a change in the law, with 82% in favour in a poll last month, conducted for the campaign group Dignity in Dying.

Those opposed argue that changing the law would break the bond of trust between doctor and patient and that a right to die would eventually turn into a duty to die for the weak and vulnerable.

James Mildred from Christian Action Research and Education told the BBC: "We want to send a positive and compassionate message - that society will help you to live as comfortably as possible at the end of life and that you are not a burden."

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