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Dying report: disagree but don’t dismiss it, says critic

11 January 2012

Exclusive group: the chairman, Lord Falconer PA

Exclusive group: the chairman, Lord Falconer PA

CANON James Woodward this week defended the Commission on As­sist­ed Dying against criticism from church leaders and religious groups — even though he was a dissenting member of it (Comment, 6 January).

The Commission published a report last week which concluded that there was “a strong case for providing the choice of assisted dying for terminally ill people” (News, 6 January), provided safe­guards were in place “to protect potentially vulnerable people”.

The lead bishop on health-care issues, the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, said on Thursday of last week that the Commission was “a self-appointed group that excluded from its membership anyone with a known objection to assisted dying”.

Speaking on Tuesday, the Revd Dr Woodward, a Canon of Windsor, and the only member of the Falconer commission to disagree with its conclusions, acknowledged that “people feel strongly about who was or wasn’t involved in the work of the commission.” He had, himself, “come under fire” for his involvement.

But he urged people “not to be distracted by attempts to dismiss the report”. It was important, he said, to “engage in the substantive questions that are explored in the report with skill, rigour, and insight. . .

“The report represents a serious contribution to the public discussion about these issues. I hope the Church might be a place where we can have wise and reflective conversations about death, choice, care and so exercise its responsibility to listen.”

Last Friday, the Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF) released the names of 46 individuals who, it said, “were invited to give evidence to the Commission but refused to do so”. These included the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Richard Chartres, Bishop Newcome, and the Bishop of Swindon, Dr Lee Rayfield.

A spokesman for Church House said on Thursday that senior clerics had been advised not to give evi­dence because the Commission had been “set up by people largely in favour” of changing the law. It was feared that giving evidence might be seen as an acknowledgement that the commission had “real power to ad­judi­cate on this issue”. He said that, if representatives of the Church had given evidence, and the report’s con­clusion had contradicted it, “it could look like we were being overruled.”

Bishop Rayfield, writing on the Bristol diocese’s blog last Friday, said that the Commission’s being “stacked with those who have already expressed support” for changing the law on assisted suicide “accounts for why so many groups and individuals decided not to give evidence. . .

“This Commission was probably viewed as a smart campaign move by advocates of assisted suicide. I have a hunch that the way they have gone about it has backfired, and more people might begin to appreciate why the law we currently have is sufficient.”

In an unpublished article, “The Intrinsic Value of Life”, Bishop New­come elaborates on his reasons for opposing the legalisation of assisted dying. He writes: “If we were to remove the principle of the intrinsic value of every human life from its core position within our society, and replace it [with] concepts such as ‘personal choice’ or ‘usefulness’, the consequences would be far-reaching and almost universally disastrous.”

If the principle that every human being is of intrinsic value is removed from the law, he continues, “on what basis would we argue, for example, that infanticide is wrong? Why should parents of an unwanted child not be allowed to kill it in a ‘humane’ manner, ensuring that its death does not cause it any suffering. . ?

“The truth is . . . that to acquiesce in the ending of a life, actively assisting in suicide, is to state that the value of a human life may be extrinsically determined. To say that society ought to have an obligation to assist its members to commit suicide is to say that we can vary our belief in the intrinsic value of life depending on circumstances.”

He concludes: “Such is the central importance of the intrinsic value of human life that nothing, not even an individual’s personal choice ought to be allowed to undermine its place within a caring, compassionate, and principled society.”

Liesje André, who described herself as “a Christian nurse who watched my mother slowly die of cancer”, said, in a letter published in The Daily Telegraph on Monday: “We should be concentrating on pro­viding the best possible end-of-life care for . . . terminally ill patients, not giving them the added stress of having to decide on their treatment plan, and when to die.”


Question of the week: Were church figures right to refuse to talk to the assisted-dying group?

We asked last week: “Should the law be relaxed to allow doctors to assist patients to die?” When we went to press, the voting stood at Yes: 36 per cent, No: 62 per cent.


Question of the week: Were church figures right to refuse to talk to the assisted-dying group?

We asked last week: “Should the law be relaxed to allow doctors to assist patients to die?” When we went to press, the voting stood at Yes: 36 per cent, No: 62 per cent.

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