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By Lord Garnier
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Health Secretary accepts need for more evidence on assisted dying, as lockdown removes Dignitas option for many dying Brits

Dignity in Dying

8 min read

The Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, the Rt Hon Matt Hancock MP, has today (Thursday 5 November 2020) accepted the need for more evidence on the impact of the UK’s blanket ban on assisted dying, welcomed a conversation about this issue and suggested the Government has a role to play in gathering evidence on the scale of the problem.

Mr Hancock was responding to an urgent question from the Rt Hon Andrew Mitchell MP on the devastating impact of new lockdown restrictions, which have made travel to Dignitas in Switzerland impossible for many terminally ill Brits.

Speaking in the House of Commons this morning, Matt Hancock said “we should make sure that this conversation and discussion happens, that there is rightly a debate about this topic” and acknowledged “the changing views of many, including many in the medical profession, and of course we observe the changes and the international debate that is taking place.”

Mr Hancock added that “it is right that we locate this question within a broader discussion about how we care for people at the end of their lives, which has become, sadly, due to the coronavirus pandemic, a central issue of public debate in this country”. Mr Hancock also said that "high-quality palliative care and the question, directly, of assisted dying before the House today are not separate questions; they are intimately tied together.”

Mr Hancock said the Government “would consider collecting data on assisted dying if it was felt that that would improve and contribute to a sensitive debate in Parliament on this subject" - including the number of Brits travelling to Switzerland for an assisted death - and recognised that “it is important that any debate is conducted based on the evidence”.

The Health Secretary also confirmed that travelling abroad for an assisted death would be permitted under the latest lockdown restrictions.

However, this does not change the current law, under which anyone assisting a terminally ill person in making arrangements for an assisted death overseas or accompanying a loved one on their journey risks prosecution, with a maximum sentence of 14 years. In addition, fewer flights to Switzerland, the significant cost (on average £10,000) and the difficulty of openly procuring the necessary documentation to prove terminal prognosis and mental capacity mean that Dignitas is still virtually impossible for most terminally ill Brits, warns Dignity in Dying. The organisation, which campaigns for a change in the law on assisted dying in the UK, is already aware of terminally ill people who have resorted to ending their own lives at home because they have been unable to secure an assisted death overseas in recent months.

Mr Hancock also agreed to meet with Dignity in Dying campaigner Noel Conway, who has terminal motor neurone disease and brought a judicial review challenging the UK’s ban on assisted dying in 2017-2018. The suggestion was made by Daniel Kawczynski MP, who said that meeting Mr Conway, his constituent, had profoundly changed his views on assisted dying.

Mr Hancock’s statements come amid growing calls from across society for a review of the UK’s blanket ban on assisted dying, most recently at a cross-party parliamentary meeting on Tuesday 3 November 2020. Co-chairs of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Choice at the End of Life, Andrew Mitchell MP and Karin Smyth MP, spoke alongside former Lord Chancellor David Gauke and Emeritus Medical Director of Public Health England Paul Cosford, days after 50 senior healthcare professionals called publicly for an inquiry into current laws.

In the House of Commons this morning, cross-party MPs highlighted the devastating impact of the UK’s current laws on assisted dying, now compounded further by coronavirus restrictions. Mr Mitchell raised the recent coverage of a terminally ill frontline NHS professional who was forced to travel to Dignitas this week prematurely and alone, for fear of the lockdown jeopardising her plans and family members being prosecuted for accompanying her. Ms Smyth spoke of a terminally ill person who resorted to drastic means to end their life earlier this year because they were unable to get to Switzerland.

MPs also spoke of the progress being made around the world on assisted dying. Last week New Zealand became the latest country to approve legislation after preliminary results last week found 65.2% voted in support of its historic referendum on the End of Life Choice Act. Within a year New Zealand will join the Australian states of Victoria and Western Australia, plus 10 jurisdictions across the US, including California, Washington, and New Jersey, in providing safeguarded choice at the end of life for its dying citizens. In October members of Ireland’s Dáil voted to progress a Dying with Dignity bill to committee stage, meaning it will now undergo pre-legislative scrutiny by one of the select committees.

International developments come amid a dramatic shift in views among UK medics. Last month the results of the largest ever survey of British doctors’ views on assisted dying found that half of doctors personally support a change in the law (50%), in addition to overwhelming support for a change to the British Medical Association’s current stance of opposition to an assisted dying law (61%).

Andrew Mitchell MP said: “The Health Secretary has today shown leadership on the vitally important issue of assisted dying, which has taken on a new urgency since the pandemic. Coronavirus has exacerbated even further the suffering of terminally ill Brits and their families under the UK’s ban on assisted dying, making it more pressing than ever that we re-examine these laws. It is vital that Parliament has an accurate and up-to-date understanding of the functioning and impact of our assisted dying legislation and I commend the Health Secretary for highlighting the importance of evidence; something which colleagues on all sides of this debate can surely agree upon.”

Karin Smyth MP said: ““I thank the Health Secretary for welcoming an open, evidence-based discussion on end of life choice in the UK, including the current ban on assisted dying. Our current law has created a two-tier system, where those with the resources can access a dignified death overseas and those who cannot afford it must either suffer against their wishes or take drastic actions to control their deaths. Now, even this limited choice to travel abroad has been removed. I hope this acknowledgement of the need to listen to dying people and their loved ones will enable us to work together as a Parliament to create a law that works for society as a whole."

Jane Parker, a 69-year-old woman from Devon who was diagnosed with terminal motor neurone disease last year, reacted to the announcement: “I thank the Health Secretary for acknowledging those of us who have felt the effects of the UK’s ban on assisted dying most keenly. I hope we will soon have the opportunity to have our voices heard.

“Motor neurone disease is killing me and has already taken my speech, my ability to swallow and is now robbing me of my breathing. I have only months left and I want to be able to choose how and when I die. Before lockdown, I could have travelled to Switzerland with suitable advance preparations and cash, accompanied by brave family members who are prepared to risk a police interview and possible arrest. But now this is virtually impossible, so I must contemplate letting nature take its course or refusing food through my PEG tube and effectively starving to death. The time has come to review these cruel laws. ”

Sarah Wootton, Chief Executive of Dignity in Dying, said: “The Health Secretary and MPs across the House have today recognised that there are significant issues with the UK’s current laws on assisted dying and acknowledged the need to gather evidence on the full impact of present legislation. MPs views are shifting more in line with the vast majority of the British public, who recognise that the current law is not working and that reform is urgently needed. The Secretary of State’s recognition that assisted dying should be part of a discussion about end-of-life care is very significant and in line with what the public want and need.

“The pandemic has proven what we have long known, that banning assisted dying does not protect people; it merely drives the practice overseas and underground and criminalises acts of genuine compassion. Dignity in Dying’s calls for a review of the current law have been gaining support from across society, with a growing number of cross-party parliamentarians, police and crime commissioners, senior healthcare professionals and interfaith leaders recognising the urgent need to look again at whether the status quo is fit for purpose.

“Parliamentarians must step up and grasp this nettle. Gathering evidence on what is really going on under the ban on assisted dying can only help them in that task, and a review of the functioning and impact of our current law would give terminally ill Brits and their loved ones a much-needed voice in this debate.”

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