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The debate on assisted dying: two professors air their views

28 March 2014


From Professor Michael N. Marsh

Sir, - I would doubt Canon Angela Tilby's view that "both sides" are claiming victory over assisted suicide (Comment, 21 March). It is probable that assisting illness-induced suicides (Lord Falconer's Bill approaching Second Reading) will become licit. But notice Lord Falconer's withdrawal of earlier rhetoric, now advocating change only for terminally ill patients with "less than six months to live" - a seemingly little, simple step forwards.

Those criteria are indeterminate and impossible to judge clinically: just think of al-Megrahi. Falconer's Bill requires "two doctors", completely unspecified in terms of end-of-life, psychiatric, or palliative-care expertise, to report "independently", where we might have thought that open discussion on such a serious matter would be of concern not only to victim, but to his or her family.

It is unclear where the assessment forms will be lodged and who will permit the killing. Since they are to be tendered post-mortem, there will be no proper scrutiny (by DPP and police), a regrettable loss of critical evaluation of procedure and of careful statistical follow-up, and (note!) no deterrence. Of course, once the victim is killed, there is no point in wondering whether life would have ceased before six months - another reason why this Bill is rather silly in content. These are hardly the kind of "protocol" and "safeguards" that Canon Tilby feels comfortable with. That's the problem.

Had the fallout from abortion-law practice been more closely observed, we might have been offered far better, sensibly considered legal approaches. For example, pre-signed abortion forms have been discovered in relevant clinics: is it too much to expect that similar malpractice will not obtain with assisted suicide in the future - once society becomes used to legalised disposal? Those organisations intent on pushing for law-change will not stop with Falconer and dissolve into thin air. Campaigning will persist until the killing of all "undesirables" is firmly written on to the Statute Book.

But another important issue is why do I say this? I assert it, not simply because of possible law-change, but rather because of the seismic changes occurring throughout society, whereby foetuses, malformed children, and the weak, disabled, and infirm are increasingly being regarded as non-persons, and therefore outside the so-called "moral community" of those regarding themselves as fit, healthy, thinking people with expectantly fulfilled futures ahead of them. These "subhuman misfits" need extermination for the "greater happiness" of the remainder.

Wesley J. Smith chillingly articulates (Culture and Death, 2000) how self-appointed "expert" bioethicists are influencing directions in high-level US Federal and Presidential policy drafting. Some of us may be reminded of analogous policies brought forward elsewhere and expedited during the 1930s. It is from this growing sinister influence that those in the firing line should certainly take fright.

This is a marked change from the era when the Oxford philosopherG. J. Warnock advocated (The Object of Morality, 1957) that those unable to speak up for themselves should be protected by us - the fit and supposedly caring people - thus recalling the ethical demands of the Kingdom of God.

Canon Tilby speaks of "church people" familiar with eloquently put arguments against assisted suicide. What arguments are these: image of God; sanctity of body/flesh; God gives and God takes; life is a gift not to be returned, and so on? At the symposium that I organised in Regent's Park College last November on death, dying, and assisted suicide, Professor Paul Badham rounded on such arguments as conversation-stoppers rather than vehicles out of which more informed, extended debate might ensue for everyone's benefit - if not for leverage against the secularist lobby.

Indeed, my view is that mounting effective arguments helpful to Christians in accommodating legalised assisted suicide is by no means an easy theological task.

In summary, legislation on assisted suicide is inevitable. Lord Falconer's Bill is flawed, and should be voted down. It is a poorly conceived instrument, and we should not sleepwalk into voting for it: we deserve far better. The Lords Spiritual should get together and be of one voice.

Finally, we need more incisive arguments from "the Church" to assuage the anxieties of ordinary Christians about the status of this legislation. In my view, assisted suicide remains a very difficult problem to apprehend from Christian perspectives, and one that would benefit from some intelligent approaches before victory on this side of the fence can be so assuredly claimed.

Fellow, The Oxford Centre for Christianity & Culture
Regent's Park College and Wolfson College, Oxford


From the Revd Professor Paul Badham

Sir, - Contrary to the claim that the legalisation of assisted dying would lead to a "dismantling of palliative-care services", the European Association on Palliative Care found that in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg palliative care has improved since voluntary euthanasia was legalised. Indeed,

in Belgium a universal right to palliative care has been introduced. We in Britain are less fortunate.

In Oregon the Hospice Association had bitterly opposed the Death with Dignity Act; but after eight years' experience they acknowledged that "Absolutely none of our dire predictions has been realized." Instead, the percentage of terminally ill people receiving hospice care had risen from 22 per cent to 51 per cent.

If a right to die led to a duty to die, we would expect to see this in Switzerland, where assisted dying has been legal for more than 70 years. On average, however, the Swiss live two-and-a-half years longer than we do, and they live longer with terminal illnesses. They experience no "duty to die". Indeed, the Swiss example suggests that a country that is willing to assist people to die will show even more compassion to those who wish to live.

The quality of their health-care is evidenced in the 30,000 foreigners a year who travel to Switzerland for the latest and best medical care, far outnumbering the hundred foreigners a year travelling to Switzerland for an assisted death.

Patron of Dignity in Dying
4 Coed y Bryn
Aberaeron SA46 0DW

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