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Former Archbishop of Canterbury supports calls for inquiry into assisted dying law

Lord Carey of Clifton makes intervention as ground-breaking new survey of doctors’ views launches this week.

The Rt Rev and Rt Hon Lord Carey of Clifton has today backed calls for a government review into assisted dying. He joins calls for a review of the functioning of the existing law from across society, including from half of Police and Crime Commissioners and from MPs of all parties, including those who are not supportive of the full legalisation of assisted dying.

Lord Carey’s support for an inquiry mirrors the official position of the Church of England, which in 2014 called for a royal commission on assisted dying. This was backed by senior clergy including the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, during debates in the House of Lords on Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill.

Yesterday saw the opening of the largest ever survey of doctors’ views on assisted dying as the British Medical Association conducts a poll of its membership for the first time. It will ask the union’s 160,000 members for their personal views on assisted dying and for their opinion on what official position the BMA should hold on the legalisation of assisted dying. It has been officially opposed to a change in the law since 2006.

In an article for the British Medical Journal, also published today, Lord Carey said:

“I want to send the message that we live in a compassionate society which has the courage to confront complexity, not one that bases its rules on fear or misunderstanding. I have observed a shift in pace in this debate in recent years. I meet far more people of faith who share my views. In Parliament there is growing acceptance that change is needed. History will no doubt conduct a forensic examination of how the assisted dying debate unfolded. I would not wish to see doctors criticised for being the last group defending a status quo many now recognise is leading to great suffering.”

In support of an inquiry, Lord Carey says:

“There have been numerous cases over the past few years that have shown to me that the law we have at the moment does not offer dying people the best possible ends to their lives. This is clear when we look at the experiences of people like Ann Whaley or Mavis Eccleston, who are being criminalised simply for helping their dying loved ones to have the deaths that they want. This is not the sign of a truly compassionate society and it is time for a full and frank reflection on what the ban on assisted dying means for people at the ends of their life and for their loving families. An independent inquiry would provide that.”

Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, welcomed Lord Carey’s intervention:

“Lord Carey is right to support an inquiry into the way the law on assisted dying is working at the moment. It is significant that this has also been the position of the Church of England, which recommended that the subject be referred to a Royal Commission in 2014 during debates on Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill. It is increasingly clear that the blanket ban on assisted dying is not working well for dying people, their families, or for the public servants who must enforce it. The Government has indicated that it is listening keenly to requests for a review of the law and we believe this is a sensible and compassionate way forward.

“After all, an inquiry should satisfy those on all sides of this debate: anybody who suggests the current law works should welcome the opportunity to see this claim borne out by evidence; those of us who believe the law is failing want to be able to shed light on how the law affects dying people and their families. There can only be one reason why there might be resistance to a review of the law; that opponents of law change lack confidence that the law is working as intended.”


Notes to Editor:

For further information and interview requests please contact Ellie Ball, Media & Campaigns Manager at Dignity in Dying: / 0207 479 7732 / 07725 433 025

Healthcare professionals

The British Medical Association launches its first ever membership survey on assisted dying in February 2020.

The Royal College of GPs is set to announce the results of a membership survey on assisted dying in February 2020.

Last year, the Royal College of Physicians dropped its longstanding opposition to assisted dying in favour of neutrality following a member survey.

International developments

Assisted dying as an option for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months of life is legal in ten US jurisdictions: Oregon (1997), Washington, Vermont, Montana, the District of Columbia, California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey and Maine (June 2019).

Victoria became the first Australian state to legalise assisted dying for terminally ill people in June 2019. Western Australia voted to legalise a similar bill in December 2019.

New Zealand will put an End of Life Choice Bill to a public referendum in September 2020 after the legislation passed third reading in November 2019.

Canada legalised medical aid in dying (MAID) in June 2016. As a result of the Canadian Supreme Court’s judgment in Carter v Canada in February 2015, the Canadian government introduced assisted dying legislation in June 2016.

Assisted dying proposals in the British Isles and Crown Dependencies

A Westminster Hall debate on assisted dying took place on 23 January 2020. The functioning and impact of the current law was debated at a backbench business committee debate in July 2019. Proposals for assisted dying legislation were last debated in the Commons in September 2015.

The Isle of Man’s Parliament, Tynwald, debated assisted dying at its January sitting on 22 January 2020. It last debated legislation in 2015.

Jersey’s Council of Ministers announced in 2019 that it would undertake detailed research into the views of residents, overseas developments and potential legislation.

The Legislative Assembly of the Falkland Islands voted in favour of two motions on assisted dying in July 2018 (that terminally ill residents should have the right to die at a time and place of their choosing, and that should legislation be introduced in the UK, the Falkland Islands would consider adopting it).

The States of Guernsey last debated assisted dying proposals in May 2018.

About Dignity in Dying

Dignity in Dying campaigns for greater choice, control and access to services at the end of life. It campaigns within the law to change the law, to allow assisted dying as an option for terminally ill, mentally competent adults with six months or less to live – something supported by 84% of the public (Populus, 2019).

Dignity in Dying does not provide practical assistance or advice in ending life, nor does it provide enquirers with the contact details of organisations who do so.