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Williams and Carey take opposite sides in debate on assisted-dying Bill

17 September 2021

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VOICES dissenting from the opposition among the various faiths to assisted dying are growing stronger before next month’s debate in the Lords on Baroness Meacher’s Bill (News, 18 June).

In an essay in the British Medical Journal last week, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, and Rabbi Jonathan Romain announced a new alliance of religious leaders supporting a change in legalisation.

On Tuesday, the British Medical Association, which represents 150,000 doctors, voted narrowly to alter its position from opposition to neutrality — which, it said, should not be misrepresented as support.

In their essay, Lord Carey and Rabbi Romain said that their initiative sought to counteract the impression that all faith groups were implacably opposed to changes in the law. “This is not the case,” they wrote. “A massive change is going on in religious attitudes . . . not least the fact that most church-goers are in favour of assisted dying”.

They referred to a 2019 poll of 5000 people by Populus, which suggested that 84 per cent of British people, 82 per cent of Christians, and about 80 per cent of religious people supported assisted dying for terminally ill, mentally competent adults.

They suggested that there had been a “new mood” in Parliament since 2015, when MPs rejected assisted dying. “MPs have been moved by the cases of people like Debbie Purdy and Noel Conway and seem ready now to change sides in view of the overwhelming public support,” they write.

“Clergy who oppose assisted dying have a right to their opinions, but they do not speak for all believers. There is not a monolithic religious view but a diversity of views, with a considerable number sympathetic to it.”

They continued: “Belief in the sanctity of life — in other words, how precious it is —does not mean believing in the sanctity of suffering or disregarding steps to avoid it. There is nothing holy about agony. If terminally-ill people do not want to live out their last few months in pain, for what purpose should they be forced to do so, and in whose interest is that life being prolonged?”

In responses published on Sunday on the BMJ website on Sunday, the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams said that, while public and professional opinion had shifted, “it is hard to see that any new facts have emerged in recent years that would justify the changes envisaged. The arguments remain essentially the same.”

Also, the Church of England’s medical-ethics adviser, the Revd Dr Brendan McCarthy, rejected suggestions that opinion polls indicated that church leaders were out of touch with their members. “The arguments for and against assisted suicide are complex and cannot be addressed in an opinion poll,” he said.

“The Church of England debates serious issues with serious intent, not least through its elected, representative bodies at deanery, diocesan, and national level. The General Synod has voted unequivocally to oppose a change in the current law on assisted suicide. Correctly, policy is decided by informed debate, not by opinion polls.

“The authors state that ‘there is nothing holy about agony’. While many Christians might suggest that the crucifixion of Jesus indicates otherwise, it is essential that people are given high-quality physical, mental, and spiritual care at the end of life . . . and most are. Some 600,000 people die each year in the UK, and, while every instance of suffering is tragic, mercifully very few die in the sort of ‘extreme pain’ that lies at the heart of appeals to change the law. Better palliation, not assisted suicide, should be our goal.

“The aspirations of a very small number of individuals seeking a change in the law, whose needs and concerns are none the less genuine, must not endanger the very large numbers of people who will be put at grave risk by any such change. In failing to pass previous ‘Assisted Dying’ Bills, both Houses of Parliament have recognised this. We must not gamble with vulnerable people’s lives in the hope that somehow, against all evidence to the contrary, we will get it right this time.”

The BMA vote at its annual policy-making conference on Tuesday was passed by a margin of 49 to 48 per cent. It brings its policy into line with the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of Nursing, and the Royal Society of Medicine.

It followed the publication the same day in The Guardian of an open letter from 103 doctors, including the brain surgeon Dr Henry Marsh, and the former Deputy Chief Medical Officer for NHS England, Dr Graham Winyard, urging the Association to end its opposition to assisted dying.

In a statement, Dr McCarthy said: “We note the BMA decision to take a neutral stance on a change in the law on assisted suicide. As was frequently stated during the debate, this stance commits the BMA to articulate the wide range of views of its members; it does not indicate support for a change in the law and should not be misrepresented as such.”

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