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General Synod digest: Government called on to improve palliative care

15 July 2022
Sam Atkins/Church Times

Canon Priscilla White (Birmingham), speaking on Zoom

Canon Priscilla White (Birmingham), speaking on Zoom

Assisted dying

MAINTAIN the current law against assisted dying, but fund palliative care services better, the General Synod has urged the Government.

Introducing the debate on his private member’s motion, on Sunday afternoon, Dr Simon Eyre (Chichester), a retired GP, said: “Hospices are suffering from a lack of funding.” He linked this to a danger of changing the law: people might choose to end their lives prematurely rather than suffer, because of the diminishing quality of palliative-care services. “Sanctity of life is central to our understanding as Christians,” he said. “Our time is in his hands” (Psalm 31).

Terminally ill people with depression and people with disabilities, including learning disabilities, would be put at risk if the law was changed.

Fiona MacMillan (London) said that, in Canada, where voluntary euthanasia had been legalised, some had said that it was “easier for disabled people to get assisted dying than assisted living”. Ms Macmillan, who uses a wheelchair, said that the UK was becoming a less safe place to be disabled. She feared that any change to the law would exacerbate discrimination against disabled people and leave them more vulnerable.

Emily Hill (Hereford) was one of the minority who spoke against the motion. She related the experience of working on a respiratory ward during the pandemic, and the “agonising” deaths that she witnessed. Like Dr Eyre, Ms Hill quoted Psalm 31, but asked why, if society was happy to make medical interventions to extend life, it could not “appropriately assist people to end it ever so slightly earlier to ensure peace”.

The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, said that compassion should not be the “prerogative of those who would like to see the law changed”, but went “both ways”. “Choice” was important, but it should not be overlooked that “the choices I make don’t only affect me.”

Sam Atkins/Church TimesThe Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge

Several members gave moving testimonies about end-of-life care. Canon Valerie Plumb (Oxford), said that, when her mother was dying of cancer, “no amount of superb hospice care could take away the indescribable horror and fear that was in her eyes.” The Church should not necessarily see assisted dying as shortening life, Ms Plumb said, “but as shortening death”, and that this was also part of caring for the vulnerable.

Canon Priscilla White (Birmingham), also on Zoom, spoke about the excellence of palliative care, and supported the motion.

The Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, said that sitting and praying with people who were at the end of their lives was “one of the great privileges of ministry”. He supported the motion, and said that “dying well can only be understood in the context of living well.”

Jane Patterson (Sheffield), a surgeon, spoke about the unreliability of prognosis. Any legislation permitting assisted dying and relying on prognosis in its assessment would be “fundamentally flawed” .

Dr Nicholas Land (York), a psychiatrist, said that “depression is very common with chronic pain,” and that there was a danger that some people would end their lives rather than get the treatment that they needed for mental ill-health.

The Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, a former Chief Nursing Officer, did not specify whether she supported the motion, but said clearly that the Government “does not properly fund palliative care”, but instead relied on charitable funding. The Church played a “significant part” in providing palliative and bereavement care, she said, which she praised. She asked that the Government do more to fund such services.

Paul Matthams (Channel Islands, Salisbury) said that Jersey had voted in favour of assisted suicide, and that legislation was being developed. He supported the motion, and said that the Church needed to “play a constructive part in debate”.

The Revd Benjamin John (St Albans) was concerned that people were choosing death to avoid being a perceived burden on their families. “We are not autonomous, but God is,” he said. “What we do with our body matters.”

The Bishop of Worcester, Dr John Inge, spoke about his wife’s diagnosis with a terminal illness in 2014, and said that, had the law allowed, she might have opted for an assisted death. “The despair of the moment could well have become determinative, and what a tragedy that would have been,” he said. This course of action would have prevented their spending their final months together. The focus, Dr Inge said, should be on “allowing people to live with dignity, not assisting them to die”.

Before a vote on the motion was taken, there were two points of order: one asking for the vote to be counted, and the other asking for a short period of prayer to precede the vote. Both were accepted. The motion was carried by 289-25, with 33 recorded abstentions.

That this Synod:

(a) appreciate the enormous and untiring efforts of health professionals, including healthcare chaplains, in constantly developing and maintaining the excellence of palliative and end of life care provision in this country;

(b) call on Her Majesty’s Government to guarantee and expedite the adequate funding and resourcing of palliative care services within the NHS to ensure that the highest possible standards of care are achieved and made universally accessible; and
(c) affirm that the current legislation in relation to Assisted Suicide referenced in Section 2 of the Suicide Act 1961 (and its application through the DPP guidelines) should remain unchanged.

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