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Bishops oppose Assisted Dying Bill supported by Lord Field

26 October 2021


Baroness Meacher joins demonstrators in favour of a change in the law outside the Palace of Westminster before the debate

Baroness Meacher joins demonstrators in favour of a change in the law outside the Palace of Westminster before the debate

FOUR bishops voiced opposition to Baroness Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill when it received its Second Reading in an eight-hour debate in the House of Lords on Friday; but the former General Synod member Lord Field, who has a terminal illness, was among those whose words were heard in support of it.

The bishops expressed fears for the vulnerable in the proposals to permit assisted suicide for terminally ill people with less than six months to live. Earlier last week, religious leaders had issued a letter lobbying against the Bill (News, 22 October).

The Bishop of Durham, the Rt Revd Paul Butler, argued that individuals might feel that they were a burden, and think that “the dutiful option” to their families was to end their life. “The scope for abuse and pressure from this for people to end their lives is significant,” he said.

During the pandemic, there had been reports of “Do Not Attempt CPR” decisions being made without, or against, the will of the vulnerable. “In a stretched and overwhelmed health service that has supported us over a long pandemic, safeguards against oversight cannot be guaranteed,” he said.

The Archbishop of Canterbury said that he considered the Bill to be unsafe. “No amount of regulation can make a relative kinder or a doctor infallible,” he said. “No amount of reassurance can make a vulnerable or disabled person feel equally safe, equally valued, if the law is changed in this way.

“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.”

The Bishop of Chichester, Dr Martin Warner, was concerned for those with no family, few friends, or responsible partners to assist them, or no experience of autonomy and power over their lives. They, he said, were “woefully ill-prepared for taking responsibility for their death”. It could lead to “unintended consequences”.

The Church’s lead bishop on medical ethics, health and social care, the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, said that more time, effort, and resources should go into improving palliative care rather than promoting assisted dying. “A good death is not always available, and more investment and research is required if we are to maintain our position as a world-leader in this area,” he said.

During the debate, Baroness Meacher read a statement from Lord Field, the former MP and General Synod member, who had been due to speak in favour of the Bill, but was unable to attend the House owing to ill health. He said that he himself was terminally ill. “I changed my mind on assisted dying when an MP friend was dying of cancer and wanted to die early before the full horror effects set in, but was denied this opportunity.

“It is thought by some the culture would change and people would be pressured into ending their lives. [But] the number of assisted deaths in Australia and the US remains very low — under one per cent — and a former Supreme Court judge in Victoria, Australia, [talking] about pressure from relatives has said it just hasn’t been an issue.”

The Bill will now pass to the Committee stage.

Read Andrew Brown and readers’ letters on assisted dying 

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