Assisted dying

We believe that any adult of sound mind who is intolerably suffering from an incurable, physical condition and has a clear and settled wish to die should have the option of an assisted death.

We have long supported attempts to legalise assisted dying. In recent years we have intervened in support of our members Noel Conway, Omid T, and Paul Lamb and Tony and Jane Nicklinson, throughout their attempts to overhaul the law on assisted dying by taking human rights cases through the courts. And in 2019 we helped establish the Assisted Dying Coalition, the national coalition working for assisted dying.

The inquiry is the latest in a string of activity on assisted dying laws by local jurisdictions:

  • In France, a ‘citizen’s convention’ concluded that assisted dying should be legalised. A draft bill is expected by October 2022.
  • In the Republic of Ireland, a special Oireachtas committee is examining assisted dying.
  • In Scotland, the Assisted Dying Bill will enter the first stage early in 2023, after 36 MSPs backed the move.
  • The Isle of Man is consulting on its proposed Assisted Dying Bill.
  • In Jersey, a consultation is in progress to examine eligibility criteria, safeguards, and processes after the States Assembly agreed to support assisted dying ‘in principle’.

In depth

Humanists defend the right of each individual to live by their own personal values, and the freedom to make decisions about their own life so long as this does not result in harm to others. Humanists do not share the attitudes to death and dying held by some religious believers, in particular that the manner and time of death are for a deity to decide, and that interference in the course of nature is unacceptable. We firmly uphold the right to life but we recognise that this right carries with it the right of each individual to make their own judgement about whether their life should be prolonged in the face of pointless suffering.

We believe that being able to die, with dignity, in a manner of our choosing must be understood a fundamental human right, a position supported by the European Court of Human Rights following Debbie Purdy’s leading case.

Families are often forced to make an intolerable choice between either letting their loved ones suffer, or supporting them to travel abroad and risking criminal investigation; and well over 200 UK citizens have had no option but to die abroad since 2015. This figure doesn’t account for the many more who wanted this option but could not afford the ~£10,000 costs.

We recognise that any assisted dying law must contain strong safeguards, but the international evidence from countries where assisted dying is legal shows that safeguards can be effective. We also believe that the choice of assisted dying should not be considered an alternative to palliative care, but should be offered together as in many other countries.

Our Policy In Full

We believe that any adult of sound mind who is intolerably suffering from an incurable, physical condition and has a clear and settled wish to die should have the option of an assisted death.

Adult means they are over the age of 18.

Sound mind is an already defined term that exists under the Mental Capacity Act. If an assessing professional had any doubt about the mental capacity of the individual, the process would stop until a psychiatric evaluation had been carried out. People with mental illnesses would not be eligible under this criteria. If a person were to lose their mental capacity the process should not continue.

Incurable, physical condition is defined as an illness where there is no cure in the foreseeable future. The healthcare professional who carries out the assessment must be satisfied that all options and changes to circumstances that could alleviate the suffering have been exhausted. It must be the disease itself that is the primary, underlying cause of the individual’s suffering and not other external factors.

Intolerably suffering means suffering from a severe illness or ailment that the individual themselves evaluates to be intolerable. Healthcare practitioners regularly make evaluations of patients’ pain in many circumstances.

Why include the incurably, intolerably suffering?
The voices and experiences of our members and the people we have supported have shaped our opinion of the law. No one should be forced to live in pain, misery, or indignity.

Legislation that is made solely for the terminally ill can be discriminatory. Someone who is incurably, intolerably suffering will be likely to be in pain for a longer period of time than someone who has six months to live. They may lose mental capacity before a doctor would diagnose them as having fewer than six months to live.

In 2021 the British Medical Association survey found that a majority of doctors (59%) would prefer eligibility criteria inclusive of those with a ‘physical condition causing intolerable suffering which cannot be relieved’.

What safeguards should exist?

A clearly defined process with safeguards will prevent a law enabling assisted dying from being misused. Many jurisdictions have special services to help patients navigate the assisted dying process. Examples of processes used successfully in other countries include the following:

Written consent must be made by the individual and signed by an independent witness who will not gain anything from the individual’s death.

Two independent healthcare practitioners must sign off that the individual meets the criteria on suffering, has the mental capacity to consent to end their life, and that all other options have been exhausted.

A waiting period between the first and the final assessment of two weeks. This can be waived in extreme cases of pain and suffering, or if death is imminent.

Regulation by a special body created to provide oversight of the service. This body should be able to provide information and guidance to both applicants and healthcare professionals. Some jurisdictions require a post-mortem review of every assisted death, which could be replicated in the UK.

An implementation period after the passage of assisted dying legislation in order for doctors to be trained, safeguards to be put in place, and services to be set up.

A matter of healthcare where courts, lawyers, and tribunals should not be required for every single case, as they add little expertise to the process. Medical professionals are trusted to help patients make decisions about very serious treatments, such as aggressive cancer treatments and major surgeries, without judicial input. Only extreme or controversial cases should be subjected to external reviews.

Conscientious objection should be allowed for any healthcare provider who does not wish to be directly involved, as long as this does not impede a patient’s access to the assisted dying service. We are not aware of any legislation where doctors cannot conscientiously object to the assisted dying process. The General Medical Council (GMC) already has guidance on ‘Personal beliefs and medical practice’ for doctors who wish to conscientiously object.

Protect autonomy for assisted dying decisions. Guidance and legislation can ensure that informed decisions are made without coercion. Family members should not be able to delay, disrupt, or be a barrier to an individual’s choices.

What we’re doing

Our work to empower people to have the choice and autonomy to be able to die with dignity includes:

  • The House of Commons Health and Social Care Committee launched an inquiry into assisted dying in England and Wales on 5 December 2022. This is the first such inquiry held by the UK Parliament since 2005. We have submitted written evidence, along with many people impacted by the current law against assisted dying and we have requested the opportunity to present oral evidence to the committee. MPs will make their recommendations to government on next steps in a report following the inquiry.
  • In 2019, we co-founded the UK’s first ever national Assisted Dying Coalition, bringing together a cross-section of organisations, campaigners, and medical professionals to advocate for a change in the law to help those who are terminally ill or incurably suffering.
  • We were the only organisation to intervene in support of Tony and Jane Nicklinson, Paul Lamb, and Martin’s landmark legal case, which prompted the Director of Public Prosecution to change its guidelines on assisted dying in 2014. Since then, we have supported our members Noel Conway and Omid T’s subsequent attempts to change the law, by providing witness statements from humanist philosophers Professor Simon Blackburn, Professor A C Grayling, and Professor John Harris in court hearings in  2017 and 2018. We also did likewise in the past with Sir Terry Pratchett.
  • In 2018, we backed new research into the legalisation of assisted dying in Jersey, and championed proposals to legalise assisted dying in Guernsey through the work of our section Channel Islands Humanists.
  • We’ve worked consistently over the years with MPs and peers to repeatedly raise the matter in Parliament and highlight the need for a compassionate change in the law, through the All Party Parliamentary Humanist Group.
  • We have repeatedly briefed the UK Parliament on assisted dying, for example urging decision-makers to support Rob Marris MP and Lord Falconer’s private members bills to allow a dignified death for those who are terminally ill.
  • In 2018, we published research showing that there is significant support for assisted dying amongst people with motor neurone disease (MND), with a plurality wishing to consider it for themselves, were it made legal with strong safeguards.
  • In 2019, our research revealed the pressing need for reform, revealing that more than one person a week now travels to Switzerland to end their life.

We’ve also worked to reform the medical community’s stances on these issues, helping the Royal College of Physicians and Royal College of Nursing to move from hostile to neutral positions on the right to die.

Get involved

You can write to your MP and ask them to support moves to legalise assisted dying for the terminally ill and incurably suffering, or write to a newspaper. You can also read our guide to campaigning locally for ideas about how to take action through a local humanist group or in your own right.

You can support Humanists UK campaigns by becoming a member. Campaigns cost money – quite a lot of money – and we need your financial support. Instead or in addition, you can make a donation to Humanists UK.