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Assisted dying edges closer

May 21, 2014

Lord Falconer has proposed a Bill to allow assisted dying. It would only apply where the person wants to end their own life; has made a declaration to that effect, is aged 18 or over and has been resident in England and Wales for not less than one year. It can only be used when a person is terminally ill, ie if that person has been diagnosed by a medical practitioner as having an inevitably progressive condition which cannot be reversed by treatment and, as a consequence of that terminal illness, is reasonably expected to die within six months. When medicines have been prescribed for a person, a health professional may prepare that medicine for self-administration by that person; prepare a medical device which will enable that person to self-administer the medicine; and assist that person to self-administer the medicine; but the decision to self-administer the medicine and the final act of doing so must be taken by the person for whom the medicine has been prescribed. The Secretary of State is also required to produce a Code of Practice on how assisted dying should actually be implemented.


Those who support assisted dying point to the experience in Oregon, where it has been legal for 16 years. In 2013 in Oregon 71 people had an assisted death (0.2% of total deaths). 90% of people who had an assisted death were also enrolled in hospice care. The majority of people who had an assisted death had terminal cancer and were aged between 55 and 84. This may say more about the quality of hospice care in Oregon, rather than the effectiveness of assisted dying law.


Be that as it may, let us assume that the assisted dying bill were to become law here, what would be the impact on life insurance? So far, the ABI has stated that it would be treated as suicide and therefore subject to the exclusion clause where a payout cannot take place if the insurance policy has been in existence for less than two years. In my view, at the very least, this stance is not sustainable. Returning to Oregon; “measure 16” forces insurance companies to honour life insurance policies of people who choose assisted dying. Since the person is going to die in a short time regardless of what happens, the law forbids insurance companies from denying claims on the grounds of suicide. Most states require insurance companies to payout on life insurance policies when someone commits suicide, but only after the policy has been in effect for a specific amount of time, usually 2 years. Oregon’s law bypasses that period of time.


So it would be quite possible to either amend the bill to do the same thing in the UK or to include it in the Secretary of State’s best practice guidelines which could be used by the FOS.


In the UK though we have a further issue which tends to support the view that treating assisted dying as suicide is plain wrong. This is because it is only permitted in circumstances when a payout would already occur on most life insurance policies – a person has a terminal illness that will result in death in six months or less. As this would trigger a payout anyway, why penalise the person for taking advantage of the law to end their life at an earlier point? This is also another good reason for including the terminal illness payout on all life insurance policies. That would avoid the need for a debate on the suicide exclusion issue. Those who bought into the simple products concept (they do not offer terminal illness payout) take note!


Written by Richard Walsh – first published in Cover magazine, 8th April 2014. (click here for Cover article )

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