Poll finds strong support ahead of publication of Holyrood bill
Specialist doctors have today (Wednesday) signalled their strong support for assisted dying laws, ahead of the publication of a Holyrood bill that could make the end of life choice legal in Scotland.
In a landmark poll of 224 anaesthetists and other doctors meeting in Edinburgh, 79% said they believed assisted dying is consistent with the same principles of compassion and best interests that underpin existing, legal NHS treatments given to patients close to death.
The survey, conducted at the Association of Anaesthetists annual congress taking place in the city, comes ahead of the publication later this year of a draft Holyrood bill being brought forward by MSP Liam McArthur.
If passed by MSPs, it would allow voluntary assisted dying to be an option – but only for terminally ill, mentally competent Scots to alleviate suffering at the end-of-life.
The findings follow the decision by a number of groups representing health professionals to drop their long-standing opposition to assisted dying. After surveying their members, the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Surgeons and many others have adopted a position of neutrality.
Last month it emerged that dozens of Scots have travelled to Switzerland for an assisted death because current laws prevent the end-of-life option in Scotland – while many more have been too ill or lacked the financial means to make the trip.
The poll was conducted among members of the Association of Anaesthetists, which represents over 10,000 anaesthetists in the UK, Ireland and internationally. It found that 79% believed assisted dying was consistent with the principles that underpin existing, legal end-of-life practices while 14% said it was not and 7% were unsure.
Those existing practices include palliative sedation, when terminally ill patients are given enough sedatives to render them unconscious, and double effect, where pain relief medication given near the end of life can also hasten death.
The poll also found that only 6% believe that existing, legal end of life alternatives to assisted dying are sufficient for all patients, while 85% said they are insufficient and 9% were unsure.
The Scottish Parliament member’s bill proposes that terminally ill people who are considered by two medics as having mental capacity would be allowed to self-administer life-ending medication to end their lives if they wish.
Liam McArthur said: “For many years, the Scottish public have been overwhelmingly supportive of a change in the law, and this survey is yet more evidence that medical experts are increasingly moving towards the same view.
“The current ban on assisted dying leaves too many Scots facing a bad death. A majority of anaesthetists support a move to a more compassionate regime that can provide adults with a terminal illness with more choice while also putting in place appropriate safeguards. That is what I hope to achieve with my assisted dying bill, and I look forward to working with those in the medical profession and others to help deliver that.”
Emma Cooper, convener of Friends at The End, said: “Many Scots will know from personal experience – as I do – that despite the very best palliative care, people are suffering unnecessarily at the end of their lives.
“This recognition from anaesthetists that a change in the law is needed is very welcome and reflects public opinion. The proposed Scottish bill will give adults with a terminal illness peace of mind that, should they wish to, they can take control of their death and avoid suffering.
“Not everyone will want to access an assisted death, but providing this choice is long overdue for a country that prides itself on being compassionate and creating fair and evidence-led policy.”
Dr Liz Page, an anaesthetist attending from New Zealand where assisted dying has been a legal choice since 2021, said the new law has made a very positive difference to terminally ill people and their loved ones.
She said: “It’s a weight being lifted off, and that fear of the unknown being eased for them. Just like any of us, we don’t quite know what’s going to happen in the future when you’re dying but they do know they have that policy there. They know that it would a really peaceful, completely painless way to die and that they can get control over it at a time when they have lost control over so many other aspects of their life.”
Successive opinion polls have found a clear majority of voters support the right to assisted dying. A Panelbase poll found that 72% of people in Scotland support a change in the law to allow the choice of assisted dying, which is already an option for more than 200 million people in countries including Spain, New Zealand, Australia and parts of the United States.
The current ban on assisted dying means dozens of terminally ill Scots who are unable to access this option instead choose to die alone by suicide each year. Many attempt failed suicides, causing deep distress to them and loved ones.
If MSPs support the Holyrood bill, safeguards would include independent assessment by two doctors and a cooling off period.
Campaigners are optimistic that McArthur’s bill will be backed by a majority at Holyrood. Three quarters of respondents to a consultation backed his plans.
Notes to Editors
For more information please contact Jason Allardyce, Allardyce Media, on email@example.com or 07795 227273
FATE is a Scottish charity that works to increase public knowledge about end-of-life choices and supports people to die with dignity.
The Association of Anaesthetists annual congress runs September 13-15 in Edinburgh.
A photo of Emma Cooper is available to download via this Dropbox link – https://www.dropbox.com/scl/fi/l9mgp44lpgko4si83o6sp/Emma-Cooper-jpeg.jpg?rlkey=xfjvlxmhgjjmp79bab1lf6vxn&dl=0