The assisted dying debate

As another prominent right to die campaigner dies, Tannice Hemming looks at the UK’s attitude towards assisted dying.

Noel Conway was 71 when he died last week. Diagnosed with Motor Neurone disease in 2014, when he died he only had the power of movement in his right hand, head and neck. He lost his appeal for the right to die in 2018. Like the others who had tried the court approach and failed before him, Conway argued that he should have the right to ask for assistance to die. Instead, he removed his ventilator. Dignity in Dying, the campaign group in favour of a change to the law to allow assisted dying was asked to release his dying statement after he had passed.

“My voice has depleted to the extent that many people cannot now tell what I say and my eyesight recently deteriorated, I’m already a paraplegic and I cannot use my hands or fingers but I am aware that my neck muscles are weakening as are my mouth and speech muscles.I recognise that the time has come to take the decision now to do something about this. I am not leaving it until I’m completely bed-ridden and unable to communicate at all.”

Noel in 2017

Currently, any doctor who speeds the passing of a person by any means faces 14 years in prison. 

Although it is now too late for Conway, he leaves a legacy of change in his wake. His MP, Daniel Kawczynski, is now committed to changing the law, after having his previous opinion on the controversial matter overturned. Conway won an award for his campaigning in 2019 at the SMK National Campaigner Awards where the ‘Best use of law’ accolade was bestowed on him. The award recognised the results of his Court fight as, although he didn’t win, the effort resulted in some important recognition of the importance of the issue. The Supreme Court’s final decision noted that the subject is of “transcendent public importance” which “touches us all”. Both the High Court and Court of Appeal restated the fact that this issue is a subject courts can rule upon, as well as confirming that a blanket ban on assisted dying contradicts Article 8 of the Human Rights Act; the right to respect for private life.

The Assisted Dying Bill

In May 2021, Baroness Meacher’s bill on assisted dying was selected in the House of Lords private member ballot. It was given its first reading at the end of May after the Baroness introduced the Bill to her colleagues in the House of Lords. It is like to have a full Second Reading later in the year. Baroness Meacher is Chair of Dignity in Dying. 

January 2020 saw a Westminster Hall Debate in which a majority of the MPs present supported a review of the existing legislation.

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Choice at the End of Life was told in April 2021 by Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, that the Office for National Statistics was being consulted on the data on suicides by those who were suffering from a terminal illness as well as data on those who have travelled to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to end their life. 

Public attitudes towards assisted dying, 

The public seem to support the concept of helping those who are terminally ill to end their life. According to Dignity in Dying, 53% of the British public would carefully consider travelling to another country where assisted dying was permitted in the case of them being diagnosed with a terminal illness. Whilst only 25% of people could afford to do so, 66% of people would think about breaking existing laws to help someone they love get there. It costs around £10,000 to complete the journey to Switzerland and, due to the practical and physical requirements to go abroad, it often means that the person attending the clinic will choose to die before their condition deteriorates further, meaning they feel they are forced to choose to end their life prematurely. 

Dignity in Dying says 300 terminally ill people end their lives every year, and 17 people a day die suffering, despite the existence of excellent palliative care. 

The medical view

Currently, the British Medical Association is opposed to any change in the law around assisted dying but a poll of doctors last year by the body found that 61% thought this stance should change and 50% of doctors are personally in favour of the legalisation of assisted dying. The BMA will debate their stance this year.

The Royal College of GPs are facing court action from the Good Law Project, Dignity in Dying and two GPs over their continued stance to oppose assisted dying despite what they say is a “dramatic shift” in the opinions of most UK General Practitioners.

Humanists UK’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson said:

‘We are deeply saddened by the death of our member Noel Conway. Noel was a warm, kind, and generous man, whose fight for the right to die inspired many people and was a catalyst for action across the UK. Nobody should be forced to end their life while physically suffering, or facing the fear of a slow and protracted death.

‘Noel shined a light upon the barbaric nature of our current law on assisted dying. By doing so, Noel’s bravery should serve as a powerful reminder to politicians that we should be past the point of turning a blind eye to this issue. We offer our deepest condolences to his friends and family.’

Around the world

Various countries and states in the USA (California, Oregon and Washington) have already moved to decriminalise assisted dying. 

Switzerland has permitted assisted suicide since 1942. The Netherlands and France allow palliative sedation, which sedates a person until they die. The Netherlands allows both euthanasia and assisted suicide as does Belgium, but the details under which these acts are legal all vary in each country and jurisdiction.

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