Intended for healthcare professionals


Assisted dying: a question of when, not if

BMJ 2021; 374 doi: (Published 09 September 2021) Cite this as: BMJ 2021;374:n2128

Read our coverage of the assisted dying debate

  1. Richard Hurley, features and debates editor,
  2. Tessa Richards, senior editor/patient partnership,
  3. Fiona Godlee, editor in chief
  1. The BMJ, London, UK
  2. Correspondence to: Richard Hurley

UK doctors must now engage with the debate

Worldwide, some 200 million adults will soon have legal access to medical help to die in specific circumstances. People in Spain,1 New Zealand,2 and Tasmania and Western Australia are joining those in Canada, Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Colombia, 11 US jurisdictions, and Victoria and South Australia in being permitted access to the option.3 Physician assisted dying has also been the subject of serious sustained discussion in the legislature or courts in Jersey, Ireland, France, Austria, Germany, and Portugal.

An assisted dying law is expected to be proposed in the Scottish parliament this year,4 and the UK parliament is considering a bill that would permit doctors in England and Wales to prescribe lethal doses of drugs for dying patients to take themselves. Two independent doctors would have to agree that an adult had less than six months to live, had mental capacity, and had been informed of all care options.5 High Court approval would be needed. There would be a two week cooling-off period (shorter if death is more imminent), and professionals with conscientious objection would not have to participate in the process. In Scotland there will be a period of public consultation before details are finalised and the legislation is brought before MSPs.

Recent high profile court cases have highlighted people with terminal or degenerative illness who claim intolerable suffering and despair and are begging for control and dignity in death. In 2014 the …

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