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Cross-party group on end-of-life choice welcomes Health Secretary’s request for more data on suicides by terminally ill people and impact of assisted dying ban

Dignity in Dying

5 min read Partner content
  • Co-chairs Andrew Mitchell MP and Karin Smyth MP commend Health Secretary’s commitment for a debate based on facts, and to further investigate ONS data suggesting 1 in 7 suicides are by people with life-limiting illness
  • Health Secretary stressed importance of evidence-based debate on assisted dying as he addressed All Party Parliamentary Group on Choice at the End of Life yesterday, attended by over 100 Parliamentarians

The All Party Parliamentary Group on Choice at the End of Life welcomes a request by the Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP, yesterday (27 April 2021) for more data on suicides by terminally ill people and the possible impact of the ban on assisted dying. Mr Hancock’s commitment came in light of new figures from the Office of National Statistics (ONS) which suggest one in 7 suicides are by people with experience of cancer, neurological, heart or lung disease.

Addressing more than 100 cross-party MPs and Parliamentarians yesterday, the Health Secretary said he had written to the ONS asking for more data and noted that “anyone who believes in high quality public discourse would want to see an independent and impartial set of facts on which we can then have a discussion.” Mr Hancock added that as Health Secretary he has “a role in ensuring that the discussion and debate are as high quality as possible.”

The Health Secretary addressed the group following comments he made in the House of Commons in November and January, highlighting the Government’s role in obtaining a fuller understanding of the functioning of current assisted dying laws and stressing the importance of suicide prevention and patient safety measures. Today, Mr Hancock reiterated that while the Government must be neutral on potential law change, gathering evidence is essential in order to inform both sides of the debate.

The APPG on Choice at the End of Life, co-chaired by the Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP and Karin Smyth MP, heard also from Barbara Wall, whose terminally ill father died by suicide.

Barbara, 67 from Bromley, said, “I am pleased that the Health Secretary listened to what I had to say and wants to better understand the impact of the current law on families like mine.

“My father was an active, sociable man even into his 90s who loved his food. But this was not the man who was discovered in his garage on the 13th of November 2016, having taken his own life months after being diagnosed with terminal oesophageal cancer. This was not the end my father deserved.

“My Dad should have been able to decide when the time was right for him and be supported to die on his own terms. We could have gathered his neighbours and family for a final goodbye and then let him go to sleep peacefully in his own bed as he wished. He should have been spared those final few weeks of unbearable suffering and the lonely, traumatic death he felt forced into.”

Mr Mitchell said:

“I thank the Health Secretary for his commitment to finding out the facts in order to ensure a fair and evidence-based debate on assisted dying. Surely colleagues of all views can agree with the Health Secretary that this discussion must be informed by high quality statistics, and that a deeper understanding of the unimaginable choices our terminally ill citizens are having to contemplate under the current law is essential. I too welcome data from the ONS to provide a more accurate picture of how many terminally ill people are taking matters into their own hands in lieu of the choice and control they rightly want and deserve in this country. ”

Ms Smyth said:

“I welcome the Health Secretary’s comments today and agree it is vital that facts underpin the assisted dying debate. More and more of my colleagues are realising that our current law has created a two-tier system, where those with the resources can access a dignified death overseas and those who don’t must either suffer against their wishes or take drastic actions to control their deaths, like Barbara’s father. More data to help us understand the full impact of the current law can only be helpful, and I hope Parliamentarians on all sides of this debate will welcome it.”

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

“We commend the Health Secretary for his compassion and desire to better understand the impact of the current law on assisted dying on terminally ill citizens and their loved ones. We hope that more data from the ONS will provide context to experiences like Barbara’s, which are not isolated tragedies but symptoms of a law that denies dying people choice and control when they need it most.

“The pandemic has proven that we cannot rely on Switzerland’s compassion to solve our problems with dying, with lockdowns and travel bans making Dignitas virtually impossible for the past year. Meanwhile, in recent months New Zealand, Spain and states across the US and Australia have passed assisted dying laws; Germany and Austria are considering legislation; closer to home a Bill in Ireland is making its way through the Dáil and Jersey is holding a citizen’s assembly on the topic. It is time for the UK to grasp this nettle and review our outdated legislation.”

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