Assisted dying ‘unwise’, warns Canon

04 January 2012

by Ed Thornton

CANON James Woodward, a member of the Falconer Commis­sion on Assisted Dying, this week declined to support its conclusion that there is “a strong case for providing the choice of assisted dying for terminally ill people”.

The Commission, chaired by the former Lord Chancellor, was established in September 2010 “to consider whether the current legal and policy approach to assisted dying in England and Wales is fit for purpose”.

Its report, published yesterday, argues that the law should be changed to allow terminally ill people in the last year of their lives who are mentally sound to ask a doctor to prescribe a lethal dose. A second doctor would have to assess the candidate independently, and alternative treatments would have to be presented. Candidates would have to administer the lethal dose themselves.

The Revd Dr Woodward, a Canon of Windsor, was the sole dissenting voice on the Commission. He said last week that a visit to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland had been his Damascus-road experience. Writing in today’s Church Times, he says: “Fundamentally, we cannot demand freedom to choose at any cost. I understand that there are significant difficulties with the current law. Yet my visit to Switzer­land . . . raised many more ques­tions about the way a culture views life, death, and the freedom to choose.

“It left me feeling that, however complex this area of human life is, it cannot be dealt with through the law or medicine alone. We need a broader and wiser reflection on our experiences of death and dying.”

The Commission heard evidence from 40 witnesses and received submissions from 1200 individuals and institutions. It states that it “considers that the current legal status of assisted suicide is inadequate and incoherent”.

It concludes that “it is possible to devise a legal framework that would set out strictly defined circumstances in which terminally ill people could be assisted to die, while providing upfront safeguards to protect potentially vulnerable people. It must be a matter for Parliament to decide on behalf of our society as a whole whether to implement such a framework.”


The lead bishop on healthcare issues, the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, said yesterday that the Commission was “a self-appointed group that excluded from its membership anyone with a known objection to assisted dying” and that the majority of its members “were already in favour of changing the law to legitimise assisted suicide”.

Bishop Newcome said that the Commission had “singularly failed to demonstrate that vulnerable people are not placed at greater risk under its proposals than is currently the case under present legislation”. He also said that the Commission had “failed adequately to take into account the fact that in all jurisdictions where assisted suicide or euthanasia is permitted, there are breaches of safeguards as well as notable failures in monitoring and reporting. . . Put simply, the most effective safeguard against abuse is to leave the law as it is.”

A poll of about 1000 adults, published yesterday, commissioned by the Christian charity CARE and carried out by ComRes, found that 45 per cent of people agreed and 45 per cent disagreed with the statement: “If the option of ending one’s life was made legal, some people would feel pressured into killing themselves”. Ten percent said that they did not know.

Forty-seven per cent of respondents disagreed with the statement: “Legalising assisted suicide would make society value people with severe disabilities more.” Thirty-seven per cent disagreed with the statement, and 15 per cent said that they did not know.

The Revd Michael Wenham, a retired Anglican priest who has Primary Lateral Sclerosis, a Motor Neurone disorder, wrote to the Church Times in December 2010 that he had been invited to give evidence to the Commission but had declined because he believed it was “neither official . . . nor indepen­dent” (Letters, 17 December 2010).

Speaking on Wednesday, he said: “The law is there to protect the vulnerable. All the major disability organisations oppose a change in the law; they represent vulnerable people in society. . . The vital point is that choice should not trump preserva­tion of life.”

The chief executive of the Christian Medical Fellowship, Dr Peter Saunders, writing on his blog on Tuesday, suggested that Lord Falconer was hiding “behind hard cases, emotional arguments, and imprecise terminology”.

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