Henry Marsh announces advanced cancer, joins 56 MPs and peers in calling for assisted dying inquiry

1 April, 2021

Do you agree with Henry and the 56 MPs and peers? Then please write to your MP today to ask them to support an inquiry into assisted dying.

Acclaimed neurosurgeon and bestselling author Dr Henry Marsh has revealed he may well have only a short time left to live, after being diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. Prompted by his diagnosis, he has now called upon parliamentarians to conduct an urgent review of the UK’s assisted dying laws.

His call has been supported by over fifty MPs and peers who have signed a joint letter calling upon the Justice Secretary and various parliamentary committee chairs to launch an inquiry into assisted dying for the terminally ill and the incurably suffering. The letter was organised by Humanists UK and My Death, My Decision.

The MPs and peers come from the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP, Green Party, and the Crossbenchers, and include some who had previously voted against changing the law. In the letter, explain that the UK’s laws on assisted dying have now fallen behind the rest of the world, and that new evidence necessitates a fresh review of the law.

The letter notes that ‘successive countries, including Canada, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, and parts of the United States and Australia, have changed or are due to change their law since 2015. Moreover, several other nations, including Ireland, are actively considering similar proposals, reflecting that such changes can be achieved in a safe and compassionate way.’

It also says that ‘there has been a significant shift in professional medical opinion and within the disability community. As of this year, in one of the largest surveys of medical opinion ever, the British Medical Association reported that half of doctors personally support legal assisted dying, with just 39% opposed, and if the law is to change, a majority favour changing it for both the terminally ill and incurably suffering. Further, Parkinson’s UK, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, and the Motor Neurone Disease Association have adopted neutral stances on this important issue.’

According to the latest polls, up to 88% of the public favour changing the law on assisted dying for those who are terminally ill and incurably suffering.

Speaking about his diagnosis, Henry Marsh said: 

‘Having spent a lifetime operating on people with cancer, the prospect of dying slowly from it myself fills me with dread. Despite the best efforts of palliative medicine, I know that dying from cancer can still be a very horrible business – for both patient and family, despite what the opponents of assisted dying claim.

‘I fiercely believe that if people in my situation knew they had the ability to choose how, when, and where they would die, it would greatly reduce their suffering. Knowing that I had this choice, if life became unbearable, would certainly give me much greater confidence now in facing whatever the future might hold for me. But as the law stands, I am not allowed this comfort, and the law insists instead that I must suffer. Many politicians have shown a striking lack of compassion by ducking this issue for too long, and are inadvertently guilty of great cruelty. Irrespective of your view on assisted dying, I would hope everyone could agree that our laws should be based on evidence and informed decisions, not alarmist, unfounded opposition that flies in the face of all the evidence from countries where assisted dying has been legalised. It’s time for all MPs to start taking this issue seriously and I urgently call upon them to undertake an inquiry into the law.’

Speaking both about Henry Marsh’s diagnosis and the joint parliamentary letter, Humanists UK’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: 

‘I am deeply sorry to hear about Henry’s diagnosis. Henry has been a loyal friend and advocate for Humanists UK and we will continue to do everything we can to support him, including in his brave work on assisted dying.

‘The ability to choose how, where, and when we die is a fundamental freedom, which cuts across party political and ideological lines. In coming together to demand an inquiry, Henry and the lawmakers who have signed this letter have put the voices of the terminally ill and incurably suffering at the centre of the debate. We urge the Justice Secretary not to shy away from the difficult questions posed by assisted dying, and to launch an inquiry or call on Parliament to do so, to ensure these voices are given the fair hearing they deserve.’

Speaking about the joint parliamentary letter he helped to organise, Crispin Blunt MP, Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group said: 

‘MPs owe their constituents a duty of compassion not to let the suffering of those who are terminally ill or incurably suffering go unnoticed. In the years since Parliament last scrutinised the law underpinning our ban on assisted dying, 250 million people worldwide have gained the option of a dignified death, new evidence has emerged demonstrating that respect for autonomy can be balanced alongside robust safeguards, and professional opinion has dramatically shifted towards a change in the law.’

‘I urge the Justice Secretary to initiate an inquiry or call on Parliament to do so.’


For further comment or information, please contact Humanists UK Director of Public Affairs and Policy Richy Thompson at press@humanists.uk or phone 020 7324 3072 or 020 3675 0959.

Henry Marsh

Henry Marsh, 71, has been diagnosed with prostate cancer and an advanced PSA score typically associated with stage 3 and 4 cancer. The typical mortality rate for those in this situation is between one and five years.

Joint parliamentary letter

Read the joint parliamentary letter, organised by Humanists UK and My Death, My Decision.

The letter has been signed by 56 MPs and peers, including the two co-chairs of the All Party-Parliamentary Humanist Group Crispin Blunt MP and Baroness Bakewell, as well as Aaron Bell MP, Lord Haworth, Lord Aberdare, Lord Dubs, Lord Turnbull, Andy Slaughter MP, Baroness Mallalieu, Baroness Taylor, Lord Young of Norwood Green, Beth Winter MP, Caroline Lucas MP, Christine Jardine MP, Chris Law MP, Clive Betts MP, Clive Lewis MP, Lord Soley, Lord Low of Dalston, Lord Lipsey, Lord Stevenson of Coddenham, Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe, Duncan Baker MP, Baroness Murphy, Lord Judd, George Howarth MP, Huw Merriman MP, Baroness Whitaker, Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb, Baroness Tonge, Lord Purvis of Tweed, Lord Maxton, the Earl of Sandwich, the Duke of Somerset, Lord Barker of Dorking, Kevin Hollinrake MP, Baroness Burt, Margaret Hodge MP, Lord Rees, Viscount Ridley, Lord Desai, Lord Dobbs, Baroness Bennett of Manor Castle, Lord Dholakia, the Earl of Clancarty, Lord Warner, Rachel Hopkins MP, Baroness Lister, Baroness Brinton, Baroness Greengross, Baroness Hamwee, Steve McCabe MP, Lord Elder, Tommy Sheppard MP, Tracey Crouch MP, and Lord Davies of Stamford.

Wider developments

Helping someone to end their life is a criminal offence under the Suicide Act 1961, and anyone found guilty can face up to 14 years’ imprisonment.

The UK Parliament last voted on assisted dying in 2015, rejecting by 330 against to 118 a private members’ bill to legalise assisted dying for those who are terminally ill and likely to die within six months.

Last year, the Court of Appeal refused Paul Lamb permission to judicially review the law on assisted dying. In its judgement the court ruled that assisted dying had now become a matter preeminently for Parliament and not the courts.

Read more about Humanists UK’s campaign for legal assisted dying.

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