Friday, 7 September 2012

Huge public support for change in law on assisted dying

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In our current issue, the gerontologist and Chair of Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying Raymond Tallis puts forward a passionate case for why the law must be changed to allow physicians to assist those who wish to in ending their own lives.

He argues that a vocal minority of opponents, composed largely, but not exclusively, of religious believers, have achieved a disproportionate level of influence in the debate around the issue, and are consequently inflicting needless suffering on those who would prefer to end their lives.

As Tallis points out in the article, public support for a change in the law is consistently demonstrated in opinion polls around the issue, and the results of a new survey released this week have once again shown this to be the case.

A YouGov poll commissioned by the British Humanist Association asked respondents the following question:
"To what extent do you support or oppose mentally competent individuals with incurable or terminal diseases who wish to end their lives receiving medical assistance to do so, without those assisting them facing prosecution?"
Of all respondents, 81 per cent expressed their support, with 43 per cent saying they "strongly support" and 38 per cent saying they "tend to support". By contrast, 6 per cent said they "tend to oppose", another 6 per cent that "strongly oppose", and 8 per cent said they "don't know".

The results are broken down by religious belief, and it's interesting to note that belief does not, on the whole, tend to correlate with opposition to assisted dying. 82 per cent of "Church of England/ Anglican/ Episcopal" followers support assisted dying (combining those who do so "strongly" and those who "tend to"), as do 66 per cent of Catholics. Of the major religious groups, only Islam had more respondents who were opposed, with 32 percent compared with 31 per cent in support (among Muslims, "Don't know" was in fact the largest group, at 37 per cent).

The legal fight by the locked-in syndrome sufferer Tony Nicklinson, who died of natural causes in August one week after losing his High Court case to allow doctors to end his life, has recently put the issue of assisted dying in the media spotlight. Looking at this poll it seems clear that, while this exposure may not have increased public support for a change in the law (polls have regularly shown support at this level), it has certainly not dented it. An overwhelming majority of the British public wish to see the law change, and those who oppose it in the name of their religion do not represent a minority even within their religious denominations. It is surely time for Parliament to act.
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