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Assisted dying study finds common ground in complex debate


Oversimplified media reporting on the complex arguments for and against legalising assisted dying is damaging our ability to hold a real debate, a study led by a Brunel University London researcher argues.

Through interviews with people holding strongly opposing views about whether assisted dying should be legalised, Professor Peter Beresford OBE and colleagues identified and explored a surprising amount of common ground – including the clear agreement that palliative care provision for the terminally ill is currently inadequate.

Their new report, Assisted Dying: Developing the Debate, shows that far from a complete polarisation of views on legalising the right to die, people often share areas of interest and concern.

It is these areas which should form the basis for further public discussion, the authors argue in the report published by Shaping Our Lives, a non-profit national network of user-led groups, service users and disabled people.

Among the study’s 14 interviewees, researchers identified a willingness to discuss prevailing social contexts and societal values, including the concept of ‘being a burden’ on society; the value society places on social care and support work; and our social attitudes toward death and dying.

Participants in the study recognised that the debate on legalising assisted dying is taking place in an unequal society: we often place lower social value on older, sick, and disabled people.

A common theme for both ‘sides’ was the inadequacy of social and palliative care. Whether for or against assisted dying, participants showed a willingness to discuss quality of life for the terminally ill, the value placed on good quality care, and how to invest in and provide access to this care in the face of economic inequality.

‘How should assisted dying be funded?’, ‘Where should it be performed?’, and ‘What methods and means of self-administrating a fatal dose should be used?’, were just some of the common questions raised during interviews.

Despite disagreement about the extent to which detailed processes and safeguards should be included in assisted dying legislation, participants from across the spectrum of opinion generally agreed that the ‘how’ questions were not being discussed well.

Several areas of shared understanding also emerged when respondents discussed the ethical and existential aspects of death and dying, including the psychological aspects of pain, suffering and death and dying both for the individual and their loved ones.

“All participants had a wish to find the best way forward with compassion for people who are terminally ill, regardless of being for or against legalising assisted dying,” the authors write.

“The right to die and assisted dying have gained massively in profile and political priority. They have become the subject of innumerable discussions and media headlines, sometimes typified as generating more heat than light.”

Professor Beresford adds: “There are distinct divisions on whether or not it would be right to change the law, but we can see from many of the people we interviewed, that the issues are far more complex than much of the public debate that we have had so far has allowed. Death and dying is a core issue for human beings and public debate must reflect all our sensitivity and intelligence.

“One important conclusion from this research is that participants appreciated that we were conducting it in the first place – the majority of people from both sides felt they were being given a valuable opportunity to explore common ground in relation to the complexities and practicalities of assisted dying.” 

Participants in both groups included people with palliative care backgrounds, people from organisations concerned with care and support of older people, older and disabled people, and individuals from academic, social work and policy backgrounds.

Assisted Dying: Developing the Debate - Exploring the issue of assisted dying and its legislation in the UK by Sarah Carr (Associate Professor of Mental Health Research, Middlesex University London), Peter Beresford (Emeritus Professor of Social Policy at Brunel University London and Professor of Citizen Participation, University of Essex) and Tina Coldham (Honorary Visiting Fellow, University of York) is published with support from the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

Read more from Peter Beresford in the Guardian - 'The euthanasia debate is polarised, yet shared concerns unite all sides'