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The dying can ‘teach value of interdependence’

23 January 2015


Rally: people demonstrating at Westminster, as the Lords debated Lord Falconer's Bill last Friday

Rally: people demonstrating at Westminster, as the Lords debated Lord Falconer's Bill last Friday

THE Assisted Dying Bill is the "thin end of an extremely large and dangerous wedge", the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, has said. The Bill was debated in the House of Lords during Committee Stage last week.

"There is [a] fundamental responsibility as a 'civilised' society to care for and protect the most vulnerable among us," the Bishop wrote in a recent blog on the Huffington Post website. "It is impossible to provide adequate safeguards against emotional coercion when it comes to elderly or disabled people feeling they are a burden on others and have a 'duty' to end their lives."

Not only would it protect vulnerable people, opposing the Bill was also the compassionate thing to do, Bishop Newcome argued. "We need to learn afresh the value of 'interdependence', and the sort of dignity that can come not only from being cared for but also from caring."

The Bill, introduced by Lord Falconer, would allow mentally competent adults who have less than six months to live to receive assistance to kill themselves.

It is very unlikely the Bill could pass into law before Parliament is dissolved for the General Election in May, however, as only a few of more than 150 proposed amendments were discussed by peers. One amendment to replace the term "assisted dying" with "assisted suicide" was defeated by 180 to 107.

Baroness Campbell of Surbiton, a disability-rights campaigner who suffers from spinal muscular atrophy, told peers during the debate: "We have been told time and again that disabled people with life-limiting conditions . . . have nothing to fear from the Bill. I do not believe that. By avoiding the term 'assisted suicide', the Bill circumvents the framework of measures in place to review, monitor, and prevent other forms of suicide. The slippery slope is oiled by the vague euphemism of 'assisted dying'. Disabled and terminally people are rightly frightened that the Bill, as currently named, puts them at risk."

Lord Harries of Pentregarth, the former Bishop of Oxford, also spoke in favour of making the language of the Bill clearer, by removing euphemisms such as "medicine" when what was meant is "lethal drugs".

Other peers, however, said that there was a clear difference between suicide and assisting someone's death once they were already terminally ill. Lord Cashman spoke of the death of his partner from cancer. He said that the grief of watching him die made him want to kill himself, too, which would be suicide. But if he had enabled his partner to accelerate his death by weeks or months, that would not amount to suicide.

The Church of England's national adviser on medical ethics, Dr Brendan McCarthy, said that the debate revealed the deep misgivings that many had over the Bill.

"The progress of the Assisted Dying Bill in the House of Lords has revealed deep divisions, and no consensus amongst peers over the principle of legalising assisted suicide," he said. "To argue that legalising assisted suicide is a 'done deal', and it is now simply a matter of providing government time for such legislation, could not be further from the truth."

If his current Bill does run out of time, Lord Falconer has pledged to reintroduce to the House of Lords legislation on assisted suicide after the election.

A survey of members of the Association of Palliative Medicine - doctors who care for terminally ill patients - found that 82 per cent opposed changing the law to permit physician-assisted suicide. If assisted suicide was legalised, the same survey suggested that 95 per cent of palliative-care doctors believed that its assessment and implementation should not become routine medical practice.

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