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Responses to Falconer on assisted dying

11 January 2012


From the Revd Michael Wenham

Sir, — In my view, we owe Canon James Woodward a debt of gratitude both for his willingness to participate in Lord Falconer’s “Commission on Assisted Dying”, and also for his courage in being a gracious minority of one in its conclusions. As your news item last week made clear, I declined to give evidence to it, though not without misgivings.

Nevertheless, I believe that Chris­tians should listen to the weighty reflections of Dr Woodward’s article, “Why I dissented from Falconer” (Comment, 6 January), and, in particular, his plea for a listening dialogue concerning life and death. Disengagement is not an option.

There is at least one thing that we should welcome as a result of the “Commission”, which is that it has lifted the taboo from discussion of suffering and death and dying. They are no longer the dark obsessions of the religious: they are the real concerns of everyone. “All of us swim in the one sea of our lives. . . But, in the end, we all sink; we all die,” as he vividly puts it. This is an opportunity for the whole Christian community to engage with the great anxiety of our neighbours.

I would agree with Canon Woodward that the serious flaw in the Falconer report’s conclusion is in the priority it gave to personal choice. Allowing autonomy to trump societal protection is a dangerous road. While we assert that, however, we must care enough for those who are suffering to risk meeting them and listening to their voices, to give them a positive message of hope rather than a fearful dead end.

The Church has been largely reactive in the assisted-suicide debate, thus giving the impression of being negative. Is it not time for us to be proactive in promoting the debate on what constitutes “the good life” (and, therefore, the good death)? to try to establish an ethical consensus on which our society might base such life and death decisions? and to try to do it without the religious rhetoric that is a threatening foreign language to many?

As Professor Sandel showed in his Reith lectures in 2009, A New Citizenship, it is an essential, if fraught, endeavour in this post-Christian (pace David Cameron) culture.

19 Churchward Close, Grove
Oxfordshire OX12 0QZ

From Canon R. H. W. Arguile

Sir, — Canon James Woodward is right about the mismatch between affirmations about pastoral care of the dying and actual practice. Two of the biggest problems are lack of money and inadequate staffing levels. A third, which encapsulates the first two, is lack of specialist provision.

In Norfolk, there are two hospices for adults, only one of which is bedded. The second unit is seeking to build a bedded facility, having got as far as putting in the footings, but at present it receives only six per cent of its income from the NHS. This level has actually dropped in the past several years from 11 per cent because the hospice has increased its fund-raising levels in order to provide a greater range of services: home care for those confined to their homes, as well as the day care provided for those who can be brought to the hospice by specialist transport. It also provides specialised outpatients support and support for carers and the bereaved.

This increase in activity has been paid for by local fund-raising, which involves staff as well as volunteers, not matched by an increase in state funding.

Magnificent though this work is, it testifies to the huge level of need and the failure of government adequately to fund the care of the dying. The voluntary element of the hospice movement may bear witness to the health of the Big Society, but it also indicates that health provision for some of the most vulnerable falls a long way short of need.

10 Marsh Lane, Wells next the Sea,
Norfolk NR23 1EG

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