Why bishops oppose Falconer’s assisted suicide bill

It has certainly not helped the case against assisted suicide that two prominent retired Anglican clergymen, Lord Carey and Desmond Tutu, have both come out in favour ahead of Friday’s second reading of Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill.

Their interventions have allowed Polly Toynbee to declare in yesterday’s Guardian that “the arrival of these Christian leaders […] breaks the notion that life is sacred and only God can dispose of us in his own good time.” For Toynbee and others, assisted suicide is the last great triumph of the quest for autonomy: “For the generation that won on abortion, contraception and gay liberation, the principle was always the right to do what you like with your own body – and that includes a right to die in peace.”

Yet there are plenty of bishops who think very differently. The Church of England’s position remains against, and plenty of Anglicans, among them the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, have lined up to regret the naiveté of the Carey-Tutu positions. The disagreement here is not so much doctrine as public safety.  As Dr Welby pointed out on ‘Newsnight’ this week:

This is not a difference between one group of people with a hard line of doctrine and another group of people who are saying we ought to be compassionate. It’s actually saying how are we compassionate and, for what it’s worth, I think the way [Lord Carey] has described compassion is written far too narrowly and with a lack of appreciation for the risks and dangers to people who would be put under pressure if the law changed and that’s why we’re so against it.

Pointing to the dangers of manipulation and the pressures under which the vulnerable could be put if a law such as Lord Falconer’s were passed, Archbishop Welby said: “I’m afraid it’s a hard reality: not everyone is nice.”

The case for Lord Falconer’s bill is the January 2012 report of the so-called Commission on Assisted Dying, an unofficial body funded by the novelist, Terry Pratchett, and organized by the lobby group known until 2005 as the Voluntary Euthanasia Society. Boycotted by more than 50 organisations and with its impartiality called into question by the British Medical Association, it was utterly predictable that the Commission would deride Britain’s current legal position on assisted suicide as inadequate and incoherent, and recommend that adults with a terminal prognosis of one year should be allowed to request and receive medication to help end their lives.

Far from being inadequate and incoherent, Britain’s law on this issue is both pragmatic and compassionate: Liberal Democrat peer Lord Alex Carlile QC aptly describes it as “a hard law with a kind face”. No one in Britain has been prosecuted in the last ten years for helping someone they care about to end their life, and no one will be. But keeping it illegal allows the law to preserve life and protect the vulnerable, and sends a clear message of disapproval. It is unlikely that someone would be prosecuted for speeding to get a woman in childbirth to hospital, but the law’s disapproval of speeding protects us all.

In reality, nothing has changed since the House of Lords’ 1994 Select Committee on Medical Ethics and its 2004-5 Select Committee on Assisted Dying advised against the introduction of laws to regulate assisted suicide. That committee based its conclusion on more than 14,000 submissions from the public and evidence from more than 140 expert witnesses from four countries.

Given this it is hardly surprising that there is widespread opposition to Falconer’s bill from  the British Medical Association, which says assisted suicide would threaten lives, damage the ethos of the medical profession, and undermine the care to which patients in distress are entitled. Similarly, disability rights groups are firmly opposed to the bill, with the heads of Scope and Disability Rights UK insisting that “a change in the law will lead to disabled people – and other vulnerable people, including the elderly – feeling pressure to end their lives.”

That the lives of the ailing and vulnerable would be devalued by such a law as Falconer’s seems indisputable. As Cardinal Vincent Nichols put it in 2009, in the face of a previous misguided attempt to introduce assisted suicide,

If my life has no objective value, then why should anyone else care for it? The notion of an absolute right to choose “a good death” may sound libertarian but it undermines society’s commitment to support fellow members in adversity. And it encourages the abandonment of the ailing.

Once life is entirely subject to human decision in its beginnings and endings, then the horizon of hope is dramatically reduced. I may hope to be the agent of that decision. But the likelihood is that someone else will either take it for me, or guide me towards taking it. Once the coin of sovereignty over death has been minted, then it will be claimed by not a few.

Though Toynbee insists that “Falconer’s safeguards are solid”, Baroness Hollins, Emeritus Professor of Psychiatry of Disability at St George’s University of London, has set out the inherent dangers in assessing capacity for the purpose of ending life. “When doctors assess capacity, they do it to protect their patient from harm, not to clear the way for them to commit suicide,” she writes. “If they make a mistake, the mistake is on the side of patient protection.”

A rigorous report into Britain’s suicide law by Lord Brennan, Baroness Butler-Sloss, and Lord Carlile, which observes that the term “assisted dying” is nothing more than a euphemism for physician-aided suicide, points out that Falconer’s bill contains no safeguards governing the assessment of requests for assisted suicide and imposes no provision for how criteria for assisted suicide eligibility should be met. Falconer’s bill asks parliament to abdicate its responsibilities to the vulnerable and leave it to others to decide how public safety should be enforced.

Bishop Mark O’Toole of Plymouth says that the bill “raises serious questions about what sort of society we want to be,” while Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewbury warns:

It is far from compassionate to remove the legal protections provided for some of the most vulnerable members of society. In 1967, the politicians who legalised the killing of unborn children in limited and exceptional circumstances did not foresee how violating the sanctity of human life would lead to the wanton destruction of millions of lives. It is not surprising that many vulnerable people, including those with disabilities, are today worried by Lord Falconer’s “assisted dying” bill.

Bishop Davies’ comparison to the 1967 Abortion Act is one that has also been made by members of the Royal College of General Practitioners in their January 2014 assisted dying consultation and Lord Walton in his evidence to the 2006 Select Committee on the Joffe Bill, both of which noted that assisted suicide legislation, like abortion legislation, has a tendency to stretch and expand. Although Toynbee dismisses the slippery slope as the worst of all the arguments, it is a fact that some slopes genuinely are slippery, especially once the law renounces its obligation to defend life.

In practice, what this would mean is that the proposed change in the law would affect not only the small minority of terminally ill people for whom the bill is ostensibly intended but also a far larger number of vulnerable individuals, uncertain about their future, who need help, care and unequivocal support to keep living. Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth rightly points out that the passing of the Falconer bill would mark a “catastrophic collapse of respect for the infinite value of each human life”.

[Greg Daly]

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