The British public support assisted dying. We shouldn’t ignore them

The British public overwhelmingly believe those who are dying should be given control over their death.

Hayley Cropper JPEG

By Mickey Charouneau of Dignity in Dying

Assisted dying is at the forefront of public debate again due to a storyline in the ITV soap Coronation Street where Hayley Cropper, suffering from pancreatic cancer, has chosen to end her life at a time of her own choosing.

It comes as no surprise that 73 per cent of people polled by the Sun would support a change in the law to allow assisted dying for people who are terminally ill, while 69 per cent would want the choice for themselves.

Regardless of the question or who asks it, opinion polls have consistently shown that the British public overwhelmingly support the right for those who are dying to be given control over the manner and timing of their death.

This debate is timely as it comes ahead of Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill, which is due to be debated in the House of Lords later this year.

Support for an assisted dying law comes from all areas of society. The most recent British Social Attitudes Survey found 71 per cent of people who identified with having a religious faith were supportive, while another poll conducted by Interfaith Leaders for Dignity in Dying found that 78 per cent of those who attended a place of worship at least once a month backed assisted dying.

The leader of this group, Rabbi Jonathan Romain, says that there is “nothing holy about agony”, and that as a man of faith he believes “in the sanctity of life, not the sanctity of suffering”.

At the end of last year the first survey in seven years to specifically ask disabled people about this issue found that 79 per cent wanted to see a change in the law.

This is important because often assisted dying for terminally ill people is conflated with assisted suicide for those people who are not dying. Many people in the disability community quite rightly want to challenge some of the rhetoric around the ‘quality of life’ argument.

What this ground-breaking survey found is that people understand the fundamental difference that separates assisted dying and assisted suicide. People support the right, when dying, to die well rather than an unfettered right to die.

Medical opinion is not as clear cut as those who are opposed to assisted dying would have us believe. A recent poll by the GP magazine Pulse revealed that more than two-thirds of GPs were in favour of the RCGP (Royal College of General Practitioners) dropping its oppositional stance to assisted dying in favour of neutrality or support.

If polls consistently show overwhelming support for dying people to have the right to an assisted death, why then are people still being denied this choice?

The most common argument is the so-called ‘slippery slope’, where the criteria of such a law would inevitably be extended to those who are not dying.

The evidence does not show this. In Oregon the Death with Dignity Act has been safely working for over fifteen years, and there has been no extension beyond the remit of people with a terminal illness. The proportions of assisted deaths have never risen above 0.2 per cent, and we can estimate this would translate to around 1000-1200 requests in Britain a year.

There are some who seek to criticise ITV and Coronation Street for their coverage, ignoring the fact that situations like Hayley and Roy’s are happening in reality. In Britain you can still face a prison sentence of up to 14 years for assisting someone to die, 29 Britons went to Dignitas in Switzerland during 2013, while many more have to die alone out of fear of their loved ones being prosecuted.

Is anyone surprised that one of Britain’s most watched TV dramas has chosen to highlight this?

Interestingly, 51.3 per cent of Oregon’s population voted for their assisted dying law in 1994 and an attempt to repeal the act three years later was rejected by 60 per cent of voters. Public opinion in Oregon was reflected in their active support for the law when another attempt by the Bush administration failed in 2006, and now 80 per cent of the public support it.

The constant polling of the British public, including today’s poll from the Sun, should be heeded come summer when Lord Falconer’s Bill is debated in the House of Lords.

10 Responses to “The British public support assisted dying. We shouldn’t ignore them”

  1. GO

    “often assisted dying for terminally ill people is conflated with assisted suicide for those people who are not dying… this ground-breaking survey found is that people understand the fundamental difference that separates assisted dying and assisted suicide. People support the right, when dying, to die well rather than an unfettered right to die.”
    I don’t get it. If someone is suffering intolerably and wants to die, why should their right to assistance be conditional upon their having a terminal illness? The idea that we should deny the right of someone like Paul Lamb or Tony Nicklinson to be spared years or decades of suffering, while recognising the right of other people to be spared weeks or months of similar suffering, seems grotesque to me. Talk about adding insult to injury.

  2. treborc1

    Nothing stopping people taking their own lives if they want to good luck to them, but stop trying to change the laws for the rest of us, these people all want to help others I do not need anyone help thanks.

  3. Mickey Charouneau

    I think there is simply a clear difference between someone who is dying, who knows that their death is imminent, to someone who is suffering but not dying. We still have a duty to protect and help people who are feeling helpless.

    I would have to ask you where would you draw the line when legislating on this difficult issue? Would you be in favor of allowing people with depression to die, or people who are not mentally competent? Would you have safeguards in place so someone who might have recently acquired a disability would not be able to have a legal assisted suicide?

    I don’t think it is grotesque or adding insult to injury, I think it cannot be ignored that these are two separate issues.

  4. GO

    “I think there is simply a clear difference between someone who is dying, who knows that their death is imminent, to someone who is suffering but not dying”

    Of course there is a clear difference, but why should we think it is a morally significant difference in this context?

    “We still have a duty to protect and help people who are feeling helpless.”

    The language you use here to oppose assisted suicide could just as easily be used by someone to oppose assisted dying. In both cases my response would be the same: firstly, the duty we owe in these cases is to ‘protect’ people from needless suffering and to ‘help’ them die with dignity if that is their wish; and secondly, this is not about people who merely *feel* helpless, but about people who genuinely *are* helpless – people for whom there is no light at the end of the tunnel and who are simply not capable of ending their own suffering.

    “I would have to ask you where would you draw the line when legislating on this difficult issue? Would you be in favor of allowing people with depression to die, or people who are not mentally competent?”

    These are good and genuine questions, but it’s not as if the proponent of assisted dying has ready answers that are not available to the proponent of assisted suicide.

    “Would you have safeguards in place so someone who might have recently acquired a disability would not be able to have a legal assisted suicide?”

    Yes, I think that would make a lot of sense.

    “I don’t think it is grotesque or adding insult to injury”
    I would just ask you to imagine the effect of the change you propose on someone like Paul Lamb. It must he hard enough living in a world in which doctors just are not allowed to help anyone to die, full stop. But imagine having to live – in constant pain – in a world in which doctors are allowed to help other people to die, but you don’t qualify precisely because no natural end to your suffering is in sight. I stand by my moral judgement that this is ‘grotesque’, and I don’t see how the conclusion that this is adding insult to the injury of someone like Paul Lamb can be escaped.

  5. GO

    The whole point is that some people *can’t* take their own lives if they want to. There *is* something stopping them – e.g. paralysis or extreme weakness. You might not ‘need anyone’s help’, but some people do. The question is whether it should be legal for (e.g.) a doctor to give them that help.

  6. Sparky

    Odd how this site ridicules public opinion as ‘populism’ that is ‘stired up by the tabloids’ on one issue, whilst lauding public opinion on another issue. Left wing hypocrisy.

  7. swatnan

    We should not be afraid of death, so i go along with this.
    I also would like capital punishment back again for extreme cases like Brady, Huntley West, etc. Lets be grown up bout life and death.

  8. swatnan

    They kept Sharon going for 8 miserable years and he couldn’t do anything about it. There surely comes a point when enough is enough, and you call it a day.
    With capital punishment surely it is better and more humane to carry out than letting someone languish and rot in jail for the rest of their lives.

  9. treborc1

    After Blair I’d not be so quick going to my hospital asking for help if this law came in, by the way all those that went to court has some movement, if people want to die they can it’s simple you stop eating.

  10. swatnan

    If you try to stop eating, then, then they’ll force feed you. Even Bobby Sands had a tube shoved down his throat. But he managed to beat them in the end to make his point, that the Unionist were no more than Colonialists.
    Shipman and West also beat the authoriies. Huntley tried, but they determined to keep him alive. Which is a complete waste of time and money on our part. Human Rights should also include the Right to Die as well as the Right to Live. Human Rights should also include Human Responsibilities.

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