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Assisted dying: UK government hints at review as it confirms that travel to clinics abroad is permitted under lockdown

BMJ 2020; 371 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.m4316 (Published 06 November 2020) Cite this as: BMJ 2020;371:m4316
  1. Ingrid Torjesen
  1. London

People who are terminally ill are still allowed to travel to places such as Switzerland to end their life under current lockdown rules in England, the government has confirmed.

The situation was clarified by England’s secretary of state for health and social care, Matt Hancock, in the House of Commons on 5 November. He also acknowledged the need for more evidence and discussion on the impact of the UK’s blanket ban on assisted dying.

Hancock said that 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 people from the UK who travel to Switzerland for an assisted death.

“We should make sure that this conversation and discussion happens, that there is rightly a debate about this topic,” he said, emphasising that it was important for the debate to take place “within a broader discussion about how we care for people at the end of their lives.”

“High quality palliative care and the question, directly, of assisted dying . . . are not separate questions; they are intimately tied together,” he said, acknowledging that views on assisted dying were changing, including in the medical profession. Last month a huge poll of BMA members showed that 61% wanted the association to drop its opposition to a change in the law and that 50% personally supported a law change.1

Changing views

Hancock was responding to an urgent question from Andrew Mitchell, co-chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group on Choice at the End of Life, who said that the lockdown restrictions had made travel to Dignitas in Switzerland impossible for many terminally ill people.

Mitchell, Conservative MP for Sutton Coldfield, highlighted the situation of a terminally ill frontline NHS professional who this week travelled to Dignitas early and alone, for fear that the lockdown would jeopardise her plans that and family members would be prosecuted for accompanying her.

Hancock also agreed to meet with the 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 2017-18. This meeting was suggested by Daniel Kawczynski, Conservative MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham, who said that meeting Conway—one of his constituents—had profoundly changed his views on the issue.

Sarah Wootton, chief executive of Dignity in Dying, said, “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.”

Responding to the parliamentary question, Gordon Macdonald, chief executive of the group Care Not Killing, commented, “It is disappointing that yet again those pushing for the legalisation of assisted suicide and euthanasia are trying to exploit the global covid pandemic to push their narrow and dangerous agenda.

“To change the Suicide Act and homicide legislation would require removing universal protections based solely on someone’s health or disability. This would send out a dog whistle message that the lives of terminally ill and disabled people are less worthy of protection than others.

“What we really need in our country is proper funding for high quality social and palliative care, which caters for patients’ physical and psychological needs and supports their families.”

References

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