Bringing the Right to Die to the British Isles (Part I): The Isle of Man’s Proposed Assisted Dying Regime

by | Nov 28, 2023

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About Dominic Bielby

Dominic is a postgraduate international lawyer currently working at the International Court of Justice as a Judicial Fellow. He studied his undergraduate Law degree and postgraduate LLM in International Law at the University of Cambridge where he received the Whewell Scholarship in International Law. He is interested in public international law, including international human rights law.

On 31 October 2023, a bill that would legalise assisted dying for the first time in the British Isles passed its second reading – but not in Westminster. Rather, it was Tynwald, the legislature of the Isle of Man, which took this step towards the protection of the right to a dignified death, or, depending on one’s view, the erosion of the right to life.

Current Legality of Assisted Dying in the Isle of Man

Along with the Bailiwicks of Jersey and Guernsey, the Isle of Man enjoys semi-independence as a British Crown Dependency: it is a self-governing country and not a part of the UK, although the UK holds certain responsibilities towards the island, such as ensuring its defence, because the nations share a Head of State. Due to this close relationship, the Isle of Man often follows legal developments in the UK, although it is not constitutionally obliged to do so.

In Manx law, assisted dying is unlawful: under section 2(1) of the Criminal Law Act 1981, it is an offence, punishable by up to fourteen years’ imprisonment, to aid, abet, counsel or procure the suicide or attempted suicide of another. A similar offence exists in England and Wales for encouraging and assisting suicide or attempted suicide under section 2(1) of the Suicide Act 1961.

The Isle of Man is bound by the obligations of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR), internationally via the UK’s own membership of the Convention (see Tyrer v. UK, §13) and domestically under its Human Rights Act 2001. Article 2 ECHR’s right to life does not include a right to die (see Pretty v. UK, §§37-40), but it does not prohibit assisted dying or euthanasia regimes (see Mortier v. Belgium, §§118-127). Although an individual’s choice to decide how and when their life will end is protected by the right to private life under Article 8 ECHR, States are granted considerable discretion to regulate how and when an individual may decide that their life should end due to their positive obligation to protect life under Article 2 (see Haas v. Switzerland, §§50-61).

Proposed Assisted Dying Regime in the Isle of Man

Having recently rejected motions to debate assisted dying legislation proposed by parliamentarians in 2015 and 2020, on 24 May 2022 Tynwald’s lower house, the House of Keys, voted 22-2 to grant leave for an assisted dying bill to be introduced. The Assisted Dying Bill 2023, proposed by Dr. Alex Allinson, largely replicates the Assisted Dying Bill introduced by Lord Falconer into the UK’s House of Lords in 2014: it allows adults with a terminal illness, who are reasonably expected to die within six months, to be prescribed life-ending medication. The scheme requires that the patient has been an ordinary resident of the Isle of Man for at least one year, and that they have expressed a clear and settled intention to end their life in a formal declaration. The condition and intention of the patient is to be verified by two doctors. Additional safeguard measures include the right for any person to conscientiously object to their participation in the acts authorised by the regime, and a prohibition on medical professionals suggesting assisted dying to, or initiating discussions on assisted dying with, their patients.

There is an important difference between the proposed Manx regime and legislative proposals which have failed in the UK: the Assisted Dying Bill 2023 would also legalise voluntary euthanasia. Whereas assisted dying generally refers to the provision of services, usually medication, which allow an individual to end their life themselves, voluntary euthanasia refers to Person A ending the life of Person B with Person B’s consent. Under Dr. Allinson’s proposal, the terminally ill individual may request an assisting medical professional to administer their life-ending drugs intravenously.

Public Opinion

Few ethical debates are as polarised as the legalisation of assisted dying. According to the Manx Government’s own consultations, 49.6% of respondents disagreed with the proposed regime, with 49.0% in support. Broadly, the respondents in favour of the Bill cited the importance of individual choice, the preservation of human dignity, and autonomy; those opposed expressed concern about the potential devaluation of human life and the pressuring of vulnerable individuals into early deaths.

Part II of this blog looks at the legalisation of assisted dying and voluntary euthanasia in Australia’s Northern Territory, and the challenges the Isle of Man may face if it does enact its own regime.

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