Archbishop Welby and Lord Carey part ways on assisted dying

12 July 2014

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"Anguish and pain": the case of Tony Nicklinson, who died in 2012, has inspired Lord Carey's change of heart

"Anguish and pain": the case of Tony Nicklinson, who died in 2012, has inspired Lord Carey's change of heart

The Archbishop of Canterbury has warned that proposals to change the law on assisted dying are "mistaken and dangerous", in an intervention drawing on painful personal experiences.

His intervention came on Friday night, just a few hours after the Daily Mail published a piece by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey, setting out why he planned to support a change in the law, despite his previous fierce opposition.

In an article in The Times, Archbishop Welby took to task those who supported Lord Falconer's Assisted Dying Bill, which would make it legal for terminally ill people to receive help to end their lives. The Bill would allow a "sword of Damocles to hang over the head of every vulnerable, terminally ill person in the country", he wrote.

"It would be very naïve to think that many of the elderly people who are abused and neglected each year, as well as many severely disabled individuals, would not be put under pressure to end their lives if assisted suicide were permitted by law. . .

"Abuse, coercion and intimidation can be slow instruments in the hands of the unscrupulous, creating pressure on vulnerable people who are encouraged to 'do the decent thing'. Even where such pressure is not overt, the very presence of a law that permits assisted suicide on the terms proposed by Lord Falconer of Thornton is bound to lead to sensitive individuals feeling that they ought to stop 'being a burden to others'."

The Archbishop spoke of letters received from both disabled individuals and their carers, concerned about the consequences of the Bill. He also drew on his own personal experience of suffering: "In the last few weeks I have sat by the bedside of someone dying while unnecessary treatment was given. I have sat by the bedside of one of my own children, having to agree to treatment ending.

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"Even in the face of such agony, I would make a plea that the deep personal demands of one situation do not blind us to the wider needs of others."

The Archbishop's first child, Johanna, was killed in a car crash in France, aged seven months. He had described how, for he and his wife, "Johanna's death and the few days after the accident and before she died were the most utter agony."

Lord Carey presented personal experience as the catalyst for his conversion to Lord Falconer's cause. While he had until recently "fiercely opposed" a change in the law, "those arguments that persuaded me in the past seem to lack power and authority now when confronted with the experiences of those suffering a painful death. . . It is the magnitude of their suffering that has been preying on my mind as the discussion over the right to die has intensified. The fact is that I have changed my mind. The old philosophical certainties have collapsed in the face of the reality of needless suffering."

The Archbishop had been most influenced by the case of Tony Nicklinson, a sufferer from locked-in syndrome who died shortly after losing a High Court appeal to be allowed to be assisted to end his life (News, 24 August 2012).

"Had I been putting doctrine before compassion, dogma before human dignity? . . . It seemed to me that both the Bible and the character of God laid far more importance on open-hearted benevolence than on upholding this particular law."

He warned of a "terrible paradox. In strictly observing accepted teaching about the sanctity of life, the Church could actually be sanctioning anguish and pain - the very opposite of the Christian message."

Lord Carey acknowledged that he was a "minority voice within the clergy and do not represent the views of the current Church hierarchy. But I am driven by private conscience to urge a change in the law when the matter comes before Parliament next week."

On Saturday, the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, lead bishop on healthcare, said that the bishops had been "surprised by both the content and the timing of [Lord Carey's] article" but that "quite a lot of good things have come out of it, including that it has brought some of the issues to the forefront of public discussion and highlighted just what an important issue this is.

"Certainly our hope as the Church of England is that the Falconer bill will be withdrawn and that because this is such an important issue it could be discussed at length by a Royal Commission."

Lord Falconer rejected the suggestion of a Royal Commission, which would "take a very long time".

This week, Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the former Bishop of Oxford, argued against a change in the law.  

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