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Hundreds of terminally ill Brits take their own lives in UK each year, latest estimates suggest

  • As Parliament prepares to debate Assisted Dying Bill on Friday, new research reveals hidden truth about drastic measures dying people forced to resort to under assisted dying ban
  • New estimates suggest 300-650 dying citizens take their own lives every year, with 3000-6500 attempting to do so, in addition to 50 Brits a year who travel to Switzerland for assisted death
  • 7 in 10 Brits believe there is distinction between assisted dying and suicide, polling published today reveals
  • 7 in 10 feel suicide prevention measures should not stop terminally ill people seeking assisted death

Hundreds of terminally ill Brits take their own lives each year in this country under the ban on assisted dying, latest estimates reveal today (Sunday 17 October 2021), with thousands more attempting to do so. As Parliament prepares to debate assisted dying legislation for the first time in six years on Friday (22 October 2021), new Dignity in Dying research uncovers the drastic measures many dying people feel forced to resort to in the UK under the current law.

The report, Last Resort: The hidden truth about how dying people take their own lives in the UK, for the first time brings together estimates from multiple sources, which suggest that between 300 and 650 terminally ill people take their own lives in the UK each year, with between 3,000 and 6,500 attempting to do so. This is in addition to the 50 Brits who travel to Switzerland for an assisted death each year on average, and 6,400 dying people who would suffer in pain in their final months in the UK even if there was universal access to palliative care.

This comes as the Assisted Dying Bill is due to receive its Second Reading in the House of Lords on Friday 22 October 2021. Assisted dying is currently banned in England and Wales under the 1961 Suicide Act, which carries a maximum jail term of 14 years.

The private member’s bill, proposed by Dignity in Dying chair and crossbench peer Baroness Meacher, would legalise assisted dying as a choice for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months of life alongside existing end-of-life care options, enabling them to die in a manner and at a time of their choosing.

Polling conducted by YouGov, published today1 as part of Dignity in Dying’s new report, reveals that seven in 10 (73%) Brits recognise that there is a distinction between a terminally ill adult seeking assistance to end their life, and suicide. Around seven in 10 (68%) do not believe suicide prevention work should include trying to prevent terminally ill people from seeking an assisted death. Having been informed about the proposals in Baroness Meacher’s Bill, seven in 10 (73%) recognise that the most appropriate title for the legislation is the Assisted Dying Bill, with just one in 10 (10%) believing it should be called the Assisted Suicide Bill.

Polling released yesterday2 (16 October 2021), also by YouGov, found that half of Brits have personally experienced a loved one suffering at the end of life (52%). Seven in 10 (74%) call for Parliament to back the Assisted Dying Bill and want to see assisted dying legalised before the next general election (70%).
Zoe Marley, 53 from Cromer, who is featured in the report, experienced the death of her mother from skin cancer in 2018 and the death of her husband Andrew from colon cancer in June 2021.

Zoe said:

“By the end, my mother’s cancer had spread from her heel all the way to her brain and she was in terrible pain. Mum was determined not to let the cancer do its worse; that she would construct some kind of escape. Because she had no other viable alternative, she attempted to take her life out in the garden, alone.

“When we discovered her she was still breathing, and as it began to grow cold I rang an ambulance to help move her inside. I told them of Mum’s clearly defined wish not to be revived and showed them the legally-binding documents to prove it, but they would not listen. A doctor was called, who threatened me and called the police. Paramedics, doctors and police officers were all in my garden arguing about what to do, as my Mum lay dying on the ground.

“Hours later Mum regained consciousness and was in emotional and physical agony. She had written heartfelt notes to us, which the police confiscated. A few weeks later, Mum did finally manage to escape her pain. I was questioned by police for hours and made to sign a five page statement. Then she was subjected to an autopsy; the final insult.

“Eleven months later my husband Andrew was diagnosed with colon cancer. His death this year was full of horror, pain and indignity; we crossed every line we didn’t want to cross. I cannot put into words how different it would have been for them and for our family if my Mum and my husband could each have been assisted to go peacefully as they wished, and with the dignity they deserved.”

Dr Julian Neal, 66, retired GP from Sussex, was also interviewed for the report. He said:

“To deny patients the choice of an assisted death when we know that a significant minority of deaths are wretched, no matter how expert the provision of palliative care, seems to me utterly wrong. But this is what I was forced to do when asked for help to die by a patient with advanced metastatic melanoma. He was intelligent and knowledgeable about what lay ahead, wanting to avoid a lingering demise. I explained that I was unable to help him due to the very real threat of imprisonment. I was later horrified to learn that he had shot himself.

“An assisted dying law would provide a kinder, safer alternative which I and a growing number of doctors would be prepared to be involved in; a welcome and much-needed change from the cruelty of our current system.”

Marjorie Wallace CBE, Chief Executive of mental health charity SANE, said:

“Assisted dying and suicide are fundamentally different concepts, requiring fundamentally different responses. SANE’s experience and research shows that acute and chronic mental illness can drive a person to attempt to take their own life, but that many people are grateful to have a second chance and access to medical and therapeutic treatments. However, for people with terminal illnesses where death is inevitable and may be traumatic, assisted dying can offer an important choice.

“Suicide prevention efforts are designed to prevent loss of life and are therefore not an appropriate reaction to the desire of a terminally ill, mentally competent person to control the manner and timing of an unavoidable death. It does a disservice to both suicide prevention and to end-of-life care to conflate shortening life with shortening death. Recognition of this distinction is essential in order to ensure everyone receives optimal care and support for their needs.”

Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, said:

“This new research reveals that the UK’s blanket ban on assisted dying is not only uncompassionate but deeply unsafe and unequal. Denied the safe, legal choice they want in this country – with Dignitas only open to those with the funds or strength to travel – hundreds of terminally ill people every year are resorting to taking their own lives in violent and extreme ways, leaving untold devastation for loved ones, local communities and first responders.

“We need more robust data to understand the full extent of this problem, we need clearer guidance for health and care professionals on how to have open, honest conversations, and we need better guidance for police officers who are called to investigate suspected breaches of the 1961 Suicide Act.

“Most importantly, we call urgently for a change in the law to give terminally ill, mentally competent adults the choice of an assisted death alongside all current end-of-life care options, as proposed in the Assisted Dying Bill due for debate in the House of Lords on Friday. This Bill represents a safer, fairer, more compassionate response to the desire of many terminally ill citizens for greater choice at the end of their lives, providing comfort and helping to prevent the horrific deaths outlined in our report.”

*ENDS*

For more information, photos or interview requests with Dignity in Dying spokespeople, Baroness Meacher, mental health experts or people with personal experiences, please contact Ellie Ball, Media & Campaigns Manager, at ellie.ball@dignityindying.org.uk or 07725 433 025.

Notes to Editor

Last Resort: The hidden truth about how dying people take their own lives in the UK

A condensed version of the report can be accessed here: www.dignityindying.org.uk/last-resort

The full version can be accessed here: https://www.dignityindying.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Last-Resort-Dignity-in-Dying-Oct-2021.pdf

YouGov polling

All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc.

1. Total sample size was 1,767 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 12th – 13th August 2021. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

2. Total sample size was 1,733 adults in GB. Fieldwork was undertaken between 7th – 8th October 2021. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+).

Estimates on the number of terminally ill Brits who take and attempt to take their own lives every year

Dignity in Dying has for the first time brought together existing attempts to estimate the number of deaths recorded as suicides that involve terminally ill people. This includes Freedom of Information requests, localised public health audits and studies of coroner records as well as initial findings from the Office for National Statistics. Together they suggest that an indicative range of between 5% and 10% of suicides in the UK involve dying people, equating to between 300 and 650 cases a year. Notably, this estimate is consistent with more robust data collected by coroners courts in Australia. The report recommends that more accurate data must now be a priority for the UK.

A further problem highlighted in the report is the number of dying people who make an attempt on their own life that does not work as intended. Dignity in Dying conservatively estimates (based on statements from the World Health Organisation) that this affects up to ten times as many people, equating to between 3,000 and 6,500 cases a year.

More data on the numbers of terminally ill people who take their own lives is expected from the Office for National Statistics later this year, after the former Health Secretary Matt Hancock announced he had commissioned the research at a meeting of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Choice at the End of Life in April 2021.

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.

Assisted dying is prohibited in England and Wales under the Suicide Act (1961), and in Northern Ireland under the Criminal Justice Act (1966) which states that anyone who “encourages or assists a suicide” is liable to up to 14 years in prison. There is no specific crime of assisting a suicide in Scotland, but it is possible that helping a person to die could lead to prosecution for culpable homicide.

Assisted Dying Bill

Baroness Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill was selected seventh in the House of Lords private members ballot in May and received its First Reading on Wednesday 26th May 2021. It will receive its Second Reading on Friday 22 October 2021. The full text can be found here: https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/2875. It is based on a bill introduced by Lord Falconer in 2014. Rob Marris MP introduced a similar bill in 2015 which was defeated in the Commons.

The functioning of the current law on assisted dying was the subject of a Backbench Business Committee Debate in July 2019 and a Westminster Hall debate in January 2020, at which a majority of MPs speaking called for a review of present legislation.

Assisted Dying Scotland Bill

Liam McArthur, Lib Dem MSP for Orkney, lodged the ‘Assisted Dying Scotland’ Members Bill proposal with the Non-Government Bill Unit (NGBU) of the Scottish Parliament in June 2021. A Consultation on the contents of the bill launched in September 2021.The proposal seeks to introduce the right to choose an assisted death for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in Scotland.

Jersey’s citizen’s jury on assisted dying

The States of Jersey are expected to debate assisted dying proposals in November 2021, after a citizen’s jury strongly recommended a change in the law to enable islanders who are terminally ill and unbearably suffering to be able to request medical assistance to end their own life. As British Crown Dependencies, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man are each able to legislate on assisted dying independently from the rest of the British Isles.

Healthcare professionals

The British Medical Association (BMA) last month (Tuesday 14 September 2021) voted to drop its official opposition to a change in the law on assisted dying in favour of neutrality, following a debate at its Annual Representative Meeting.

The largest ever poll of British doctors on assisted dying, conducted by the BMA in February 2020, results of which were released in October 2020, found overwhelming support for a change to the BMA’s current stance of opposition to an assisted dying law (61%), and that half of doctors personally support a change in the law (50%).

In March 2019, the Royal College of Physicians (RCP) dropped its longstanding opposition to assisted dying in favour of neutrality following a member survey.

The Royal Society of Medicine, Royal College of Nursing (and Royal College of Nursing Scotland), the Royal College of Psychiatrists and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society all also hold neutral positions on assisted dying.

The Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, Association of British Neurologists, General Medical Council, General Pharmaceutical Council, Royal College of Anaesthetists, Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists, Royal College of Ophthalmologists, Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Royal College of Pathologists, Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh, Royal College of Radiologists and Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh have no stated position on a change in the law on assisted dying.

In September 2020, Eminent GPs Prof Aneez Esmail and Sir Sam Everington launched a legal challenge to the Royal College of GPs (RCGP) alongside the Good Law Project and Dignity in Dying over RCGP Council’s decision to maintain opposition to assisted dying despite its own survey showing a dramatic shift in GP opinion. The Association for Palliative Medicine and the Royal College of Surgeons of England also hold a stance of opposition to a change in the law on assisted dying.

International developments

In the US, assisted dying as an option for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months of life is legal in 11 jurisdictions: Oregon (1997), Washington, Vermont, Montana, the District of Columbia, California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey, Maine and New Mexico (legislation approved April 2021).
In Australia, assisted dying is a legal choice for terminally ill citizens in Victoria (June 2019), Western Australia, Tasmania, South Australia and Queensland (legislation approved September 2021). A bill has also been tabled in New South Wales.

New Zealand is set to implement an assisted dying law allowing this option for terminally ill, mentally competent citizens in November 2021, following a public referendum on the End of Life Choice Act in October 2020.

Spain passed a law allowing assisted dying in March 2021 to be implemented later this year.

In Ireland, assisted dying is set to be examined by a Special Oireachtas Committee, as recommended by the Justice Committee in July 2021.

Austria’s Supreme Court ruled in December 2020 that its blanket ban on assisted dying is unconstitutional and the practice will be decriminalised in limited circumstances by 2022.

Germany began considering potential assisted dying legalisation in January 2021 after its Constitutional Court struck down the ban in 2020.

Canada introduced assisted dying legislation in 2016 permitting those suffering from a grievous and irremediable medical condition.

In Colombia legislation was passed in 2015 which permits those with terminal illness or unbearable suffering to request access to life-ending medication.

Assisted dying is permitted in Switzerland, including for foreign nationals, and broader right-to-die laws are in place in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.