Your web browser is outdated and may be insecure

The RCN recommends using an updated browser such as Microsoft Edge or Google Chrome

RCN position on assisted dying

Published: 19 July 2023
Last updated: 19 July 2023
Abstract: RCN position on assisted dying

Assisted dying remains a highly contentious and much debated topic, both in the public and the medical and nursing arenas. Concerns have been raised regarding compassion, poor management of uncontrolled pain or other symptoms, patient autonomy, care-provider autonomy, the potential for coercion and abuse and the vulnerability of people with disabilities. 

The Royal College of Nursing is committed to supporting its members provide high quality end of life care to ensure a comfortable and dignified death, with the intention of alleviating distress.

The assisted dying debate is complex, involving many legal, ethical, medical, socio-cultural, and religious issues. In July 2009, the RCN’s governing Council voted to move to a neutral stance in relation to assisted dying for people who have a terminal illness. This followed an extensive and detailed consultation process with our members. 

The RCN position of neutrality remains and rightly reflects our members differing views on the issue. Should there be any proposed changes to current legislation, members will be informed, and meaningful engagement will be undertaken in any decision-making process. This may also include the right to object in the participation of Assisted Dying.

If during the passage of any parliamentary process there are issues that would relate directly or indirectly to the role of the nurse or nursing practice, we will of course comment on such matters. 

Should current legislation change we will work with our members and the Nursing and Midwifery Council (NMC) to ensure the Nurses rights are protected, this specifically relates to conscientious objection.

The RCN Council commissioned guidance for nurses on assisted dying following the consultation in 2009 ‘When someone asks for your assistance to die’, published in 2016 (2nd Edition) and is available on the RCN website.

The guidance incorporated: 
  • the law on assisted dying in England, Wales, Northern Ireland, and Scotland 
  • the law on advance decisions
  • sources of information on high quality end of life care 
  • reasons why people may express a wish to die 
  • responding to a request to hasten death 
  • scenarios nurses may encounter and suggested responses. 

The role of nurses, regardless of their title, role, or place of work, have a part to play in ensuring they can undertake difficult conversations with the people they care for. It is essential that nurses are enabled to address concerns and provide support to those in their care safely and effectively.

Building trusting and therapeutic relationship with individuals and providing evidence-based information, appropriate treatment and person-centred care is vital to making the last few months and days of life as comfortable as possible. 

The RCN is aware that issues relating to assisted dying are extremely emotive and may cause a great deal of anxiety for nurses in all settings. The RCN will continue to seek and represent the views of our members.