Henry Marsh announces advanced cancer, joins 56 MPs and peers in calling for assisted dying inquiry

Acclaimed neurosurgeon and bestselling author Dr Henry Marsh has revealed he may well have only a short time left to live, after being diagnosed with advanced prostate cancer. Prompted by his diagnosis, he has now called upon parliamentarians to conduct an urgent review of the UK’s assisted dying laws.

His call has been supported by over fifty MPs and peers who have signed a joint letter calling upon the Justice Secretary and various parliamentary committee chairs to launch an inquiry into assisted dying for the terminally ill and the incurably suffering. The letter was organised by Humanists UK and My Death, My Decision.

The MPs and peers come from the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, SNP, Green Party, and the Crossbenchers, and include some who had previously voted against changing the law. In the letter, they explain that the UK’s laws on assisted dying have now fallen behind the rest of the world, and that new evidence necessitates a fresh review of the law.

The letter notes that ‘successive countries, including Canada, Germany, Italy, New Zealand, and parts of the United States and Australia, have changed or are due to change their law since 2015. Moreover, several other nations, including Ireland, are actively considering similar proposals, reflecting that such changes can be achieved in a safe and compassionate way.’

It also says that ‘there has been a significant shift in professional medical opinion and within the disability community. As of this year, in one of the largest surveys of medical opinion ever, the British Medical Association reported that half of doctors personally support legal assisted dying, with just 39% opposed, and if the law is to change, a majority favour changing it for both the terminally ill and incurably suffering. Further, Parkinson’s UK, the Multiple Sclerosis Society, and the Motor Neurone Disease Association have adopted neutral stances on this important issue.’

According to the latest polls, up to 88% of the public favour changing the law on assisted dying for those who are terminally ill and incurably suffering.

Speaking about his diagnosis, Henry Marsh said: 

‘Having spent a lifetime operating on people with cancer, the prospect of dying slowly from it myself fills me with dread. Despite the best efforts of palliative medicine, I know that dying from cancer can still be a very horrible business – for both patient and family, despite what the opponents of assisted dying claim.

‘I fiercely believe that if people in my situation knew they had the ability to choose how, when, and where they would die, it would greatly reduce their suffering. Knowing that I had this choice, if life became unbearable, would certainly give me much greater confidence now in facing whatever the future might hold for me. But as the law stands, I am not allowed this comfort, and the law insists instead that I must suffer. Many politicians have shown a striking lack of compassion by ducking this issue for too long, and are inadvertently guilty of great cruelty. Irrespective of your view on assisted dying, I would hope everyone could agree that our laws should be based on evidence and informed decisions, not alarmist, unfounded opposition that flies in the face of all the evidence from countries where assisted dying has been legalised. It’s time for all MPs to start taking this issue seriously and I urgently call upon them to undertake an inquiry into the law.’

Speaking both about Henry Marsh’s diagnosis and the joint parliamentary letter, Humanists UK’s Chief Executive Andrew Copson said: 

‘I am deeply sorry to hear about Henry’s diagnosis. Henry has been a loyal friend and advocate for Humanists UK and we will continue to do everything we can to support him, including in his brave work on assisted dying.

‘The ability to choose how, where, and when we die is a fundamental freedom, which cuts across party political and ideological lines. In coming together to demand an inquiry, Henry and the lawmakers who have signed this letter have put the voices of the terminally ill and incurably suffering at the centre of the debate. We urge the Justice Secretary not to shy away from the difficult questions posed by assisted dying, and to launch an inquiry or call on Parliament to do so, to ensure these voices are given the fair hearing they deserve.’

Speaking both about Henry Marsh’s diagnosis and the joint parliamentary letter, My Death, My Decision’s Chair Trevor Moore said: 

‘It is distressing to know that Henry Marsh, our patron and an ardent supporter of assisted dying for many years, is faced with decisions about the end of his own life sooner than he might have expected.

‘For too long politicians have dragged their feet on this all-important issue, and we warmly welcome the action of these influential parliamentarians in speaking out about the pressing need for a public inquiry on assisted dying. Around 350 million citizens in multiple countries across the globe now benefit from assisted dying laws. Our decision-makers must be given the earliest opportunity to scrutinise the evidence from those jurisdictions to see how a compassionate law, with robust safeguards, works in practice.’

‘Rather than look back at past draft laws rejected by Parliament, we will continue to encourage our decision-makers to focus on the approach taken to assisted dying in Canada. There, allowing end of life choice for mentally competent adults who are incurably suffering or terminally ill is now well established alongside – and not in opposition to – palliative care.’

Speaking about the joint parliamentary letter he helped to organise, Crispin Blunt MP, Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Humanist Group said: 

‘MPs owe their constituents a duty of compassion not to let the suffering of those who are terminally ill or incurably suffering go unnoticed. In the years since Parliament last scrutinised the law underpinning our ban on assisted dying, 250 million people worldwide have gained the option of a dignified death, new evidence has emerged demonstrating that respect for autonomy can be balanced alongside robust safeguards, and professional opinion has dramatically shifted towards a change in the law.’

‘I urge the Justice Secretary to initiate an inquiry or call on Parliament to do so.’