“More than ever people want choice when they are facing the end of their lives, be that the choice to have treatment withdrawn, or the choice to ask doctors for help to die in their final days and weeks.”
77% support changing the Suicide Act to allow terminally ill patients the choice of an assisted death. Only 13% oppose changing the law. If the law were to change, 84% say terminally ill adults should be able to request medical assistance to die from their doctor subject to up-front legal safeguards. But only 36% would extend this right to physically disabled adults who are not terminally ill.
The Suicide Act, which received Royal Assent on 3 August 1961, decriminalised attempted suicide whilst creating an offence of assisted suicide, punishable by up to 14 years in prison. Fifty years on there is little appetite to prosecute those who help a loved one to die on compassionate grounds, as evidenced by new prosecuting guidelines published by the Director of Public Prosecutions in 2010. These guidelines in effect forgive compassionate amateur assistance to die, but do not provide a safeguarded means of physician assisted dying – something only Parliament can do.
A poll of over 2000 people conducted at the weekend on behalf of Dignity in Dying found that 77% of the public would like the Suicide Act to be changed to allow terminally ill patients the choice of an assisted death. Just 13% of those asked were against a change in the law.
The poll asked the public if a change in the law should be broader than just assisted dying for terminally ill people. The majority of those questioned felt that a change in the law should be for terminally ill, mentally competent adults only. This was in stark contrast to low levels of public support for a change in the law to make assistance to die legal for disabled people (36%) or to be made available to any adult with mental capacity (30%).
The poll found that huge importance is attached to people having choice in what happens to them at the end of their lives. As well as the majority of the public supporting assisted dying, most people (81%) also supported the existing practice of the withdrawal of medical treatment with the patient’s consent. Support dropped dramatically (to 31%) when asked if doctors should be withdrawing medical treatment without a patient’s consent.
Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying said:
“The results clearly show that the public, like Dignity in Dying, support a change in the law to allow assisted dying whereby a terminally ill, mentally competent adult can ask for help to die in their final days or weeks if their suffering becomes unbearable. The majority of the public do not support legalising assisted suicide where non- terminally ill people are given assistance to die at their request. The law should reflect this important difference.
“More than ever people want choice when they are facing the end of their lives; be that the choice to have treatment withdrawn, or the choice to ask for help to die in their final days and weeks. Alongside changing the Suicide Act, which 50 years on is no longer fit for purpose, we must also strive to ensure that people who know what treatment they do or do not want at the end of life make an Advance Decision, and that healthcare professionals engage their patients fully in end-of-life decision making.
“Again, the public have spoken in favour of greater choice at the end of life; it is now time for decision-makers and healthcare professionals to engage with how we ensure that all people can have what they consider to be a good death. As is well documented, the failure to do so creates a situation in which some people take matters into their own hands. Such people would be better protected by a change in the law that allows for a full consideration of their request to die when they are alive and all of their end of life care and treatment options can be explored with healthcare professionals.”
Notes to editor:
For more information on the enactment of The Suicide Act 1961, read Shelia Moore’s article ‘How Rab Butler decriminalised suicide’ in Conservative History Journal (P18):
About the Poll
BritainThinks conducted an online survey of 2047 UK adults between 29th-31st July 2011. Data were weighted to be representative of the UK adult population in terms of age, gender, social grade and region. The survey was conducted using the Populus Data Solutions online panel.
The opinion poll asked:
At the moment, doctors can hasten patients’ deaths in the last days and weeks of life by withdrawing medical treatment including artificial fluids and food. If doctors treating the patient consider it to be in their best interest and the patient has given their consent for treatment to be withdrawn, do you agree with this practice?
81% said yes, 10% said no, and 10% said don’t know.
At the moment, doctors can hasten patients’ deaths in the last days and weeks of life by withdrawing medical treatment including artificial fluids and food. If doctors treating the patient consider it to be in their best interest BUT the patient is unable to give consent for treatment to be withdrawn (i.e. they have lost the ability to communicate their wishes) would you agree with this practice?
31% said yes, 10% said no, and 29% said don’t know.
At the moment if a terminally ill (dying) adult considers their suffering unbearable and wishes to end their life, doctors cannot legally prescribe life-ending medication to the patient (for the patient to take themselves) as to do so would be an offence under the Suicide Act 1961 in England and Wales and under the law of homicide in Scotland. Do you think the law should be changed to allow terminally ill adults who want to die to have the choice of receiving assistance from their doctor to end their life, subject to up-front legal safeguards?
77% said ‘yes, I think the law should be changed’, 13% said ‘no, I don’t think the law should be changed’, and 10% said that they didn’t know.
Which of the following groups do you believe should be able to request medical assistance to die from their doctor subject to up-front legal safeguards?
Terminally ill adults: 84% yes, 9% no, 7% don’t know.
Physically disabled adults who are not terminally ill: 36% yes, 38% no, 26% don’t know.
Any mentally competent adult who wishes to request medical assistance to die: 30% yes, 51% no, 19% don’t know.
BritainThinks is a new research and strategy company founded by Deborah Mattinson and Viki Cooke. BritainThinks provides its clients with strategic and communications advice rooted in new public opinion research. www.britainthinks.com
About capacity and treatment decisions:
Patients with mental capacity
An adult patient who has mental capacity can decide to refuse treatment, even if refusal may result in harm to themselves or in their own death. Doctors must respect a refusal of treatment from a patient who has capacity.
Patients who do not have mental capacity
If a patient who is approaching the end of life has not made an Advance Decision or appointed an Attorney to make health decisions on their behalf, doctors will decide what treatment the patient receives. The doctor must consult with the healthcare team and people close to the patient, and take their views into account when making decision about which treatment the patient will receive.
Withholding and withdrawing treatment
An act by which the doctor’s primary intention is to bring about a patient’s death would be unlawful, but the law recognises that it may not always be in a patient’s best interests to prolong their life, and doctors are not obliged to provide treatment that is futile or burdensome on the patient. Life prolonging treatment can lawfully be withheld or withdrawn from a patient who lacks capacity if starting or continuing treatment is not in their best interests.
About Dignity in Dying:
- Dignity in Dying campaigns for greater choice, control and access to services at the end of life. It advocates providing terminally ill adults with the option of an assisted death, within strict legal safeguards, and for universal access to high quality end-of-life care.
- Dignity in Dying has over 25,000 supporters and receives its funding entirely from donations from the public.
About Compassion in Dying:
Compassion in Dying is a national charity (no. 1120203) that aims to support people at the end of life to have what they consider to be a good death by providing information and support around their rights and choices. We are a leading provider of free Advance Decisions in the UK and we also conduct and review research around patient rights and choices in end-of-life care.
For more information on Compassion in Dying visit http://www.compassionindying.org.uk.
An Advance Decision is a document that allows individuals to set out their wishes and preferences for medical treatment in advance, in the event that they become unable to communicate with their health team (for example, if they fall into a coma or develop dementia). Advance Decisions were given statutory force under the Mental Capacity Act, 2005 (in October 2007) meaning the refusal of treatment is legally binding. The Compassion in Dying in Advance Decision is fully compliant with the Mental Capacity Act.
Advance Decisions are sometimes called:
- living wills;
- advance directives.
Free Advance Decisions are available by calling the Information Line or to download from http://www.compassionindying.org.uk.
For all Dignity in Dying media enquiries please contact Jo Cartwright on 020 7479 7737 / 07725433025 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.