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It is time for us to respect public opinion and end the indignity of our current laws on assisted dying

Omid T, an assisted dying campaigner who ended his life in Switzerland in 2018. Credit: Andi Reiss.

Lord Rees of Ludlow | My Death, My Decision

3 min read Partner content

Proposals to legalise assisted dying for the terminally ill – those expected to have less than six months to live – are being debated in the House of Lords this week. This debate is welcome, and I shall support Lady Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill.

But it could be improved. I think it would be better to remove the ‘six-month’ stipulation, because the choices of those facing incurable suffering deserve equal respect, compassion, and dignity whatever their life expectancy is.  

In the wake of Tony Nicklinson’s legal challenge in 2014 – when the Lords previously considered similar proposals – I was struck by the dearth of arguments for excluding incurable conditions which cause extreme suffering.  

After all, who wouldn’t feel sympathetic towards the plea of those in Tony’s circumstances: a rational man entombed within his body, incapable of speech, who simply asked for the right to end his own life on his own terms?

That was seven years ago. Since then, over 250 million more people worldwide have gained the right to an assisted death. And several countries, including Canada and Spain, have offered regulatory blueprints for alternative and broader changes in the law. 

Assisted dying accounts for 1.1% of deaths in Canada. According to the campaign group My Death, My Decision, around 30% of these would have been excluded by a ‘six-month’ stipulation. 

Independent studies have found that Canada’s framework effectively safeguards against the risk of abuse, and according to Palliative Care Australia does not adversely impact palliative care services. Palliative care does not have to be in opposition to the option of assisted dying – in other countries they work alongside each other.  

Palliative care does not have to be in opposition to the option of assisted dying – in other countries they work alongside each other

I was fortunate to know, for more than 40 years, the great scientist Stephen Hawking. Despite progressive and extreme disability, he survived to the age of 72, and died peacefully. Thankfully, despite facing extreme frustration, he never experienced great pain, but he supported this change in the law. It would have been a comfort for him – as it would be for many of us – to know that such a provision existed.  

The political case for an inclusive change in the law has become more forceful. The independent pollsters NatCen found that nearly nine in ten (88%) members of the public want to see reform for those with incurable conditions. That included people identifying as disabled. And medical groups such as the British Medical Association and the Royal College of Physicians have dropped their opposition to an assisted dying law. 

In Scotland, a law is being championed which would not include an arbitrary six-month life expectancy criterion. Moreover, in Jersey an overwhelming majority of a citizens’ jury (70%) recently recommended legalising assisted dying for the incurably suffering. 

It is time for us to respect public opinion, learn from evidence abroad, and end the indignity of our current law – we should all voice our support for the incurably suffering as well. I expect to be joining many colleagues in doing so in the House of Lords debate this week.  

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