Assisted dying is not a topic that most people want to think about over their morning cup of coffee. That is fair enough; it's not a particularly cheerful topic to contemplate, but it is an important one that is becoming increasingly vital to the public debate as the UK's ageing population continues to grow. In fact, new research shows that four out of five people in the UK support assisted dying, despite the controversial nature of the issue.
Lord Falconer's Private Members' Bill on assisted dying was tabled in the House of Lords last week, giving rise to renewed debate on the issue. The Bill proposes that those over 18, who are deemed to be mentally competent, and who have a terminal illness where the prognosis is six months or less, should be allowed the right to be assisted by a doctor in ending their life. Despite the tabling of this Bill, Cicero Group's research found that only 5% of people in the UK believe assisted dying will be legalised in 2013, although 61% believed that it would be legalised at some point in the future.
There are two main camps in the assisted dying debate; one side believes that legalising assisted dying would be the start of a slippery slope, paving the way for the manipulation and abuse of vulnerable people, and also raises concerns that legalising assisted dying would lead to a decline in the value that society places on human life.
Meanwhile, supporters of assisted dying focus on the autonomy and dignity of the patient; if a patient's mental and physical suffering becomes too great, they believe the patient should have the right to choose when to die. Those in favour also think doctors should be involved in assisted dying, to reduce the risks involved in amateur suicides, and to prevent those from prematurely travelling abroad to die, when they might prolong their lives if they were able to end them at home.
Although this recent survey shows that 80% of the public believe assisted dying should be legalised, there are concerns around the protection of vulnerable people and this was reflected in the research, with 79% of people saying they could foresee a situation where financial factors, such as pressure from family members, may cause vulnerable people to end their lives through assisted dying.
Interestingly, only 45% of those surveyed (from a sample of 1,015) felt that being terminally ill should be a requirement of having an assisted death, while 42% of those surveyed were in favour of people with degenerative diseases being allowed the option of an assisted death.
Regardless of the possible pitfalls, 73% of people said they would like to have the option of an assisted death for themselves, in the event that their suffering becomes too great at some point in the future, while 60% of people could imagine some circumstances where they might assist someone else in ending their life.
Assisted death is a complicated issue and for many people it is frightening to imagine the state a person must be in if they no longer want to live. But this does not mean the matter should be ignored or hidden from public debate. Rather it should be considered, analysed and scrutinised as much as possible in an open forum to ensure the highest degree of compassion and safety is given in end of life care.
Margarita Shinder is a health research associate at the Cicero Group. The report: 'A Means to an End: An Analysis on the Assisted Dying Debate' can be read here