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Faith leaders join forces to oppose Assisted Dying Bill

21 October 2021


Campaigners against the legalisation of assisted dying campaign outside Parliament, in 2015

Campaigners against the legalisation of assisted dying campaign outside Parliament, in 2015

THE Archbishop of Canterbury, the Chief Rabbi, and the head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales have expressed “profound disquiet” over the Assisted Dying Bill, which is due for its second reading in the House of Lords on Friday.

Archbishop Welby, Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis, and Cardinal Vincent Nichols have written to peers in advance of their consideration of Baroness Meacher’s Private Member’s Bill, which proposes legalising assisted suicide for terminally ill people with less than six months to live.

They warn of the risk to vulnerable people under the Bill, and call instead for high-quality palliative care for all at the end of their lives. The aim of a compassionate society should be “assisted living” rather than an acceptance of assisted suicide, they write.

“By the faiths we profess, we hold every human life to be a precious gift of the Creator, to be upheld and protected. All people of faith, and those of none, can share our concern that the common good is not served by policies or actions that would place very many vulnerable people in more vulnerable positions.

“We appeal to people of whatever faith or belief to join us through our common bond of humanity in caring for the most vulnerable people within our society. In contrast to the proposals in this Bill, we continue to call for measures to make high-quality palliative care available to all at the end of their lives. We believe that the aim of a compassionate society should be assisted living rather than an acceptance of assisted suicide.”

They acknowledge that Baroness Meacher is seeking the alleviation of suffering, but write that, while they share her motivation “wholeheartedly”, they disagree on “the means advanced to address this very real concern”. In particular, they say that they are “conscious of the risks and dangers entailed in the provisions of the Bill and the ‘real-life’ practical inadequacies of the proposed safeguards”.

Speaking in the House of Lords, on Friday, during the Second Reading of the Bill, Archbishop Welby said: “Sadly, I believe this Bill to be unsafe. As a curate and parish priest, I spent time with the dying, the sick, and the bereaved. I still do. . . We know that the sad truth is that not all people are perfect, not all families are happy, not everyone is kind and compassionate.

“No amount of safeguards can perfect the human heart, no amount of regulation can make a relative kinder or a doctor infallible. No amount of reassurance can make a vulnerable or disabled person feel equally safe, equally valued, if the law is changed in this way.”

He continued: “All of us here are united in wanting compassion and dignity for those coming to the end of their lives. But it does not serve compassion if by granting the wishes of one closest to me, I expose others to danger. And it does not serve dignity if, in granting the wishes of one closest to me, I devalue the status and safety of others.

“I hope your Lordships will reflect, and while recognising the good intentions we all share, resist the change this Bill seeks to make.”

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, also spoke during the Second Reading. He said: “There is a very real danger that individuals feel they have become a burden, and thus think that the dutiful option to their families is to end their life. In Oregon and Canada, where assisted dying has been legalised, fear of being a burden to their families actually frequently accompanies the requests.
The scope for abuse and pressure from this for people to end their lives is significant. It is not a giant leap but a small step. The practice of weighing the value of lives against emotional and financial cost simply is dehumanising.”

He continued: “The consequences of this Bill to the most vulnerable do have to be deeply considered. If the value of people’s lives is called into question, it is likely that those who have been historically undervalued and overlooked will be again. Those with disabilities, mental health issues, and other minorities are already vulnerable, and the difference of experience between those groups and others has again been evident during the pandemic.

“This Bill acts on the principle that people should have the ability to act upon their will to end their lives. But what we have seen over the pandemic are instances, as reported by the Care Quality Commission, of Do Not Attempt CPR decisions that have been made either without, or against the will of the vulnerable.

“Perhaps even more troubling was the aspect of the report by CQC that those decisions ‘were being applied to groups of people’. In a stretched and overwhelmed health service that has supported us over a long pandemic, safeguards against oversight cannot be guaranteed. What would have been the outcome of the pandemic if the medical stakes had been higher?” 

Several other bishops also spoke in opposition to the Bill.

The Bill will now pass to the committee stage for further scrutiny.

Read the full text of the letter here

Comment: Resist this latest move to legalise assisted dying

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