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Victory for a proper caution

18 September 2015

THE Assisted Dying Bill hit the rocks in the House of Commons a week ago (News, 11 September). Two out of three MPs voted against it. I was surprised, because for months, years even, I have been following the debate, mostly in The Times, and my favourite columnists had more or less persuaded me that the only objectors to the new legislation were a few religious enthusiasts bent on destroying what most sane and rational people wanted.

On the rare occasions when The Times allowed a voice against assisted dying to be aired, it came from someone with an obviously religious agenda, or someone holding what The Times regards as faintly suspect views on other issues.

On the morning of the vote, Philip Collins, a writer I usually like, produced a vicious rant, claiming that religious people were hiding their nasty beliefs about death behind a totally flawed argument about the vulnerable. There was, he said, no possible threat to the frail elderly. Doctors and judges would ensure that no one felt pressured to die prematurely.

After the defeat of the Bill, MPs claimed that the Commons was out of touch with the people, and there was at least one call for a referendum on the grounds that, apparently, 80 per cent of people are in favour of assisted dying.

We have not heard the last of this. The courts will now have to continue to interpret the law as it stands, with all the ambiguity that goes with it. For now, however, I think that MPs were right to refuse to back the Bill. I suspect that they could not square the apparent transparency of the proposed legislation with the emotional reality of old and fragile people’s feeling that the law expected them to do the decent thing and opt to die. No one wants to seem selfish. What might appear to 80 per cent of the population to be a compassionate solution to suffering would have put new pressure on those whom it was designed to help.

The will of the people is not always enough. The majority of the population have been shown time and time again to be in favour of capital punishment, but MPs will not touch that with a bargepole. Sometimes, we need our elected representatives to scrutinise what we think we want, and to see potential consequences that we cannot or will not see. More is expected of them than crowd-pleasing. The vote was not a victory for religion, but it was for a proper caution that in this case goes beyond popular sentiment.


The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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