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Largest ever poll on assisted dying finds increase in support to 84% of Britons

  • Poll finds overwhelming majority of public across all parts of the country support assisted dying proposals
  • 52% of people would feel more positively towards their MP if they supported assisted dying, compared to just 6% who would feel more negatively

The largest poll ever conducted on assisted dying has found that 84% of people in Great Britain support a change in the law. A survey of more than five thousand people from England, Wales and Scotland said they would support a change in the law to allow terminally ill, mentally competent adults to have an assisted death, provided they met strict upfront safeguards.

The poll, conducted by Populus, found that support for assisted dying has increased from 82% since their last survey in 2015, and that support is consistently strong across demographics including gender, age, social grade and region. There is even stronger support for assisted dying for terminally ill people amongst people who stated they had a disability, while there is broad support for assisted dying across most faith groups, including more than 82% support amongst Christians.

When asked whether they would feel more or less favourably towards an MP who was supportive of assisted dying, more than half of respondents said they would feel more positively, and only 6% said they would feel more negatively towards an MP who voted in support of law change on assisted dying.

The news comes just two weeks after the Royal College of Physicians decided to adopt a neutral stance on assisted dying following its own survey of members, and a week after New Jersey became the eighth state in the USA to permit choice at the end of life.

Noel Conway, 69, from Shropshire, has terminal motor neurone disease and recently brought a legal case challenging the blanket ban on assisted dying.

He said:

“I do not want to die, but I am going to. I simply want to be able to decide when the time is right for me, and drift off peacefully at home with my family around me. If I lived in Toronto, California or Melbourne I would be able to. But here in the UK my only options are to suffer until the bitter end, to remove my ventilator and slowly suffocate, or to travel to Switzerland at huge financial and personal cost. This is downright cruel, and this latest poll has shown that people across the country, from all walks of life, will not stand for it. For MPs to continue to ignore the suffering of dying people like me and the views of their own constituents is a grave dereliction of duty. The law must change.”

Ann Whaley, 76, from Buckinghamshire, faced a criminal investigation after police were made aware of her plan to accompany her terminally ill husband Geoff, 80, to Dignitas in February 2019. Ann has requested a meeting with David Gauke, the Secretary of State for Justice, asking him to look into the problems the current law causes for dying people and their families.

She said:

“My experience has only strengthened my firm belief that assisted dying must be made a legal option in this country. Geoff should not have had to spend over £11,000 or travel to a foreign land in order to fulfil his final wish to die on his own terms. I should not have been robbed of precious time with him or been made to feel like a criminal simply for standing by my husband of over 50 years. I am determined to honour Geoff’s memory by fighting for the law to be changed so that no other family has to endure what we did, and I am cheered to have the weight of public opinion behind me.”

Dignity in Dying’s Chief Executive Sarah Wootton said:

“This poll confirms that assisted dying has huge public support in the country, with five out of every six Brits wanting a change in the law. In these divided times, there is a cause that unites the vast majority of the country and that is seeking a more compassionate law for dying people.

“In polls over the last three decades, there has always been a consistent, strong majority of public support for assisted dying, but MPs have not reflected the views of their constituents on the subject. Voters for every political party, in every region of Britain and across all age groups want to bring our laws into line with other countries like Canada, the USA and Australia. It is crucial that MPs listen to the British people on this subject and ensure that dying people do not have to suffer against their wishes at the end of life.”

***ENDS***

Notes to Editor:

For further information and interviews with representatives of Dignity in Dying, please contact Ellie Ball at ellie.ball@dignityindying.org.uk / 0207 479 7732 / 07725 433 025.

Populus poll

  • Populus interviewed a random sample of 5,695 adults online between 11th March and 24th March 2019.
  • Interviews were conducted across Great Britain, with an increased sample level in Scotland, and the results have been weighted to be representative of all British adults.
  • Polling tables are available on request from ellie.ball@dignityindying.org.uk

The last major assisted dying poll, conducted by Populus in 2015 of 5,018 adults, found 82% of the public was supportive of a change in the law on assisted dying. The full results can be accessed here.

Noel Conway v Secretary of State for Justice

  • Noel Conway, 69, from Shropshire, was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), a form of motor neurone disease, in November 2014.
  • His condition is incurable and terminal, and Noel feels that he is prevented from exercising his right to choice and control over his death under the current law and fears that he may be forced to suffer against his wishes.
  • Supported by Dignity in Dying, Noel brought a judicial review against the Secretary of State for Justice to challenge the law which bans assisted dying, on the grounds that it infringes disproportionately on the human rights of himself and other dying people.
  • The High Court and the Court of Appeal both reaffirmed that cases of this nature can be decided upon by the Courts, enabling future cases to have an easier passage. The Courts also confirmed that the ban on assisted dying is an interference with the right to respect for private life, as protected by the Human Rights Act.
  • Although Noel’s case was denied a full hearing at the Supreme Court in November 2018, the judgment acknowledged that assisted dying is an ‘issue of transcendent public importance’ and ‘touches us all’.

Ann and Geoff Whaley

  • Geoff Whaley, 80, from Buckinghamshire, was diagnosed with motor neurone disease in December 2016.
  • In December 2018, Geoff was given a prognosis of six to nine months.
  • In February 2019, Ann was questioned by police after an anonymous call to social services alerted them of her plan to accompany Geoff to Dignitas for an assisted death.
  • The investigation was eventually dropped, but it could be reopened if new evidence comes to light.
  • On the day of his death at Dignitas on 7 February 2019, an open letter from Geoff was sent to all MPs, urging them to change the law on assisted dying.

The current law on assisted dying in the UK

  • 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.

The true cost of the law

  • Currently, every 8 days [1] someone travels to Switzerland from Britain for a legal assisted death – a process which costs £10,000 on average [2] and often causes people to die earlier than they would have wanted in order to be well enough to make the journey.
  • Polling has found that over half (53%) of Brits would consider travelling abroad for an assisted death if terminally ill and two-thirds (66%) would consider breaking the law to help a loved one do so, yet only a quarter (25%) would be able to afford it [3]. A further 300 terminally ill people end their own life in the UK every year [4].

International developments

  • Assisted dying as an option for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months of life is legal in eight US jurisdictions: Oregon (1997), Washington, Vermont, Montana, the District of Columbia, California, Colorado and Hawaii (January 2019). An assisted dying Bill passed in the New Jersey Assembly and Senate on 25 March 2019 and is now awaiting the Governor’s signature.
  • Victoria became the first Australian state to pass a Bill legalising assisted dying for terminally ill people in November 2017. The law will come into effect in June 2019. A similar Bill was defeated in New South Wales by just one vote in November 2017. The Government of Western Australia plan to introduce an Assisted Dying Bill in their state Parliament in the second half of 2019.
  • Canada legalised medical aid in dying (MAID) in June 2016.

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.
  • 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.

[1] Estimated using publicly available figures from Dignitas and figures supplied through private correspondence with the Life Circle (Eternal Spirit) facility.
[2] The True Cost: How the UK outsources death to Dignitas – Dignity in Dying, November 2017.
[3] Polling conducted by YouGov, August 2017.
[4] A Hidden Problem: Suicide by terminally ill people – Dignity in Dying, October 2014.