ON THE eve of a House of Commons vote on the new Assisted Dying Bill, the Archbishop of Canterbury has joined more than 20 other faith leaders to warn against the proposals.
In an open letter to MPs published on Sunday, Archbishop Welby wrote that the Bill now before Parliament, brought by the Labour MP Rob Marris, would not protect vulnerable people, and would put pressure on elderly people to end their lives.
The letter was also signed by the Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Vincent Nichols; the Chief Rabbi, Ephraim Mirvis; and others, including leaders from the Methodist, Baptist, and Pentecostal Churches, and Muslim, Sikh, and Jain representatives.
It read: “For many, a change in the law would result not in greater comfort but in an added burden to consider ending their lives prematurely; a burden they ought not to be asked to bear. We believe that the best response to individuals’ end-of-life concerns lies in ensuring that all receive compassionate, high-quality palliative care.” The signatories wrote that their call came from their pastoral experience of caring for the elderly and dying, and their families.
“For very many people the natural processes of dying, allied with good palliative care, enable them and their families to experience precious moments of love, care, reconciliation, and even hope — processes that ought not to be truncated.”
In an article for The Observer on the same day, Archbishop Welby criticised the Bill for undermining society’s convictions that those considering suicide should be encouraged to embrace life, and those who were terminally ill should be given physical and spiritual support.
“We can show that we love, even when people have given up on caring for themselves,” he said. “We risk all this for what? Becoming a society where each life is no longer seen as worth protecting, worth honouring, worth fighting for?”
In a separate article for the Evening Standard Archbishop Welby said it was important to identify when society might be about to plunge down a "slippery slope".
He questioned Mr Marris's Bill, which provides for assisted suicide for those with less than six months to live who have made a settled decision to kill themselves.
Neither the prognosis of six months to live, nor an informed decision can be known with any accuracy, Archbishop Welby argued, noting it could take up to six months alone to diagnose clinical depression. "How can we be absolutely sure that a 'right to die' will not eventually become a 'duty to die'?"
Mr Marris’s Bill, which was due to be debated by MPs today, after the Church Times went to press, is the same as the Assisted Dying Bill introduced by Lord Falconer into the House of Lords in the previous Parliament, which was also fiercely opposed by faith leaders (News, 18 July 2014).
The former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey has announced his support for legalising assisted suicide. But other bishops have spoken out against the Bill and are urging MPs to vote against it. The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, said that his experience of seeing his wife suffering from terminal cancer was what convinced him to oppose assisted dying.
“The fact that my wife was diagnosed with inoperable cancer brought these issues home to me,” he told ITV News last week. “I began to see, in a personal point of view, the effect assisted-dying legislation would have upon people like my wife. Inevitably, she would feel pressurised in that way.” Dr Inge’s wife, Denise, died on Easter Day last year (Gazette, 2 May 2014).
Church leaders in Mr Marris’s constituency, Wolverhampton, have also released an open letter to the MP, insisting that he does not have the support of Christians in the area. Signed by 34 priests, ministers, and pastors, the letter argues that assisted dying would remove legal protection from vulnerable elderly, disabled, and dying people.
It “would dishonour God’s gift of life, and lead into all sorts of unfortunate consequences”, they said.
However, in an article for the Daily Mirror's website Mr Marris has insisted faith leaders only argue about the practicalities of assisted dying because they have lost the religious argument.
"Society should not keep alive a terminally ill patient of sound mind who wishes to be end their own life, solely to avoid upsetting that patient’s loved ones," he wrote on Wednesday.
"Those who believe that ending one’s own life is always wrong should not deny choice to those of us who do not share their beliefs."
A senior figure in the hospice movement has also warned that assisted dying would put hospices under threat. Canon Peter Holliday, group chief executive of St Giles Hospice in Lichfield and deputy chair of national charity Hospice UK, said that hospices which refuse to assist people in killing themselves could lose vital NHS funding.
"If there is no possibility within the final legislation for hospices to opt out of being a part of what is effectively assisted suicide, then there is nervousness about where our funding might be found in the future," Canon Holliday said.
Hospice care is the way to help the dying - Letters to the editor
'The dangers of assisted dying' - The new Bill could harden attitudes against frail people, argues Robert Twycross
'What it means to be a burden on each other' - The key to discussions of assisted suicide is an understanding of being dependent, says Nola Leach