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Assisted dying

We have long supported attempts to legalise assisted dying and voluntary euthanasia in the UK and crown dependencies for those who have made a clear decision, free from coercion, to end their lives and who are physically unable to do so themselves. In many cases, the person in question will be terminally ill. However, we do not think that there is a strong moral case to limit assistance to terminally ill people alone and campaign for a change in the law that would be responsive to the needs of other people who are permanently and incurably suffering.

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. We have also supported parliamentary attempts to legalise assisted dying for the terminally ill. And in 2019 we helped establish the Assisted Dying Coalition, the national coalition working for assisted dying.

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 his or her own judgement about whether his or her life should be prolonged in the face of pointless suffering.

We believe that the current law against assisted dying disregards the needs and autonomy of patients because many people are already helped to die by doctors or nurses, but without the safeguards that legislation would bring; or, families are often forced to make an intolerable choice between either letting their loved ones suffer, or supporting them 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 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.

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.

What we’re doing

Jane Nicklinson (right) pictured with her late husband, Tony. Photo credit: Jane Nicklinson.

Jane Nicklinson (right) pictured with her late husband, Tony. Photo credit: Jane Nicklinson.

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

  • In 2019, we co-founded the UK’s first ever national Assisted Dying Coalition, and 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 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.

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