The debate was confirmed after an official government petition lodged by Dignity in Dying CEO Sarah Wootton smashed the 100,000 signature target needed for petitions to be considered for debate. At the time of writing, the petition has 141,938 signatures and ranks in the top five of more than 1,333 live petitions on the government’s website. Eighty-four per cent of British people support the legalisation of assisted dying as a choice for terminally ill people in their final months, with majority support across all age groups, parts of the country, voting intention and socio-economic status.
Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, said:
“The British public has secured this debate – more than 140,000 people from right across the country have demanded that MPs give assisted dying the time and respect it deserves.
“In the two and a half years since Westminster MPs last debated this issue, the landscape of the assisted dying debate has changed dramatically. New Zealand, every Australian state and several states in the US have legalised assisted dying. Bills are progressing in the Scottish, Jersey and Isle of Man Parliaments, with votes in all three expected next year. It can no longer be claimed that doctors oppose law change – the British Medical Association has dropped its longstanding opposition in favour of neutrality, with half of doctors now personally supporting it; last week the Royal College of Nursing voted to update its neutral position statement on assisted dying to reflect the changing landscape of the debate and the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) dropped its longstanding opposition to assisted dying in favour of neutrality. Public support for change continues to soar, as it has done for decades.
“Despite these enormous changes, there is currently no prospect of adequate time being given for a debate on assisted dying legislation in Westminster. Baroness Meacher’s Bill ran out of time earlier this year, after the Government refused to grant sufficient time for the Bill to be properly scrutinised. MPs must break the deadlock, examine the effectiveness of the current law, look at the way in which other countries have listened to their own citizens and brought forward safe and compassionate laws for dying people. Ultimately, we must ensure that any future legislation on assisted dying is given the time it needs to be discussed, examined and improved where necessary.
“Until Parliament grasps this nettle, the blanket ban on assisted dying will continue to cause untold devastation to British families. Thousands of terminally ill people die in pain and suffering every year despite the best efforts of palliative care, with only a fortunate few able to access an assisted death overseas at an average cost of over £10k. Without a safe, legal option to die on their own terms at home, hundreds of terminally ill people every year are therefore taking matters into their own hands using whatever means are at their disposal, forced to die alone or beg for compassionate but illegal help from loved ones. In the vacuum of Parliament’s inaction, the Crown Prosecution Service has recognised that it is not in the public interest to pursue these cases, but the law remains unchanged and family members still risk prosecution for their assistance.
“It is only right that, in the face of public outcry, the mounting evidence of the dangers of the status quo and the unstoppable march of progress overseas, our elected representatives are given an opportunity to examine whether the blanket ban on assisted dying is truly working.”
The debate marks the first time assisted dying will be debated by MPs since January 2020, when a Westminster Hall debate on the topic was held, and is three years on from a Backbench Business Committee Debate held on the 4th of July 2019.
The debate comes after a Private Member’s Bill introduced to the House of Lords by Baroness Meacher, Chair of Dignity in Dying, fell at the prorogation of Parliament on 28th April, despite the Bill passing its Second Reading unopposed in the House of Lords in October and commanding huge public and parliamentary support. In January 2020 a majority of MPs speaking in a Westminster Hall debate on assisted dying backed an inquiry into current legislation. Last month, following a debate in Isle of Man’s parliament, the Tynwald, members of the House of Keys (MHKs, the equivalent of MPs) voted overwhelmingly in favour (22-2) of allowing a private member’s bill on assisted dying to be introduced. In Jersey, a citizen’s jury and its parliament, the States Assembly, last year approved the principle of assisted dying and draft legislation will be drafted later this year for debate in 2023. In Scotland, an assisted dying bill proposal brought by Liam McArthur MSP received a huge public response last year with a final proposal expected to be lodged in the autumn, followed by scrutiny by committee next Spring and a stage one vote in the Scottish Parliament expected next Summer.
Recent data from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) has indicated that terminally ill people are more than twice as likely to take their own lives than the general population. The data comes after several suicides and suicide pacts involving terminally ill Brits have come to light, with Dignity in Dying research estimating that up to 650 terminally ill people are taking their own lives every year in the UK in lieu of the safe, legal choice of assisted dying. This is in addition to the pre-pandemic average of 50 Brits a year who travel to Switzerland for an assisted death (costing at least £10,000) and 6,400 a year who suffer in pain as they die in the UK despite access to the best possible palliative care.
In January 2020, Dignity in Dying launched Compassion Is Not A Crime, a campaign led by loved ones who have been criminalised under UK laws on assisted dying, calling for an inquiry into the impact of current legislation. In January 2022 the CPS launched a consultation on proposed updates to its guidance on suicide pacts and so-called ‘mercy killings’, which carry a potential charge of manslaughter or murder respectively, clarifying that it is not in the public interest to prosecute where the deceased was seriously ill with a clear and settled wish to die and where the assistance was compassionately motivated. This mirrors existing guidance for cases of ‘assisting or encouraging a suicide’ and has been welcomed by Dignity in Dying, however it does not change the law; a blanket ban on assisted dying remains which only Parliament can address.
Dignity in Dying campaigns for a change in the law to allow assisted dying as a choice for terminally ill, mentally competent adults, subject to strict safeguards and alongside access to high quality palliative care.
Over 200 million people around the world have access to some form of assisted dying law. Every Australian state has now legalised assisted dying after New South Wales’ parliament became the last to vote for assisted dying last month, with only the territories remaining. Similar laws are in place across New Zealand and in 11 jurisdictions in the US, with broader laws in place in countries across Europe, North and South America.
For further information and interviews with parliamentarians, Dignity and Dying spokespeople and case studies please contact Molly Pike, Media and Campaigns Officer at Dignity in Dying on 07929 731181 or email: email@example.com