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Synod rejects assisted dying by a large majority

11 July 2022

Sam Atkins/Church Times

Dr Simon Eyre (Chichester)

Dr Simon Eyre (Chichester)

THE General Synod has called on the Government to maintain the current law against assisted dying and provide better funding for palliative care services.

Dr Simon Eyre (Chichester), a retired GP, moved a private member’s motion on the subject on Sunday afternoon. “Hospices are suffering from a lack of funding,” he said, and linked this to a pressure to change the law to allow assisted suicide. People might choose to end their lives prematurely rather than face suffering exacerbated by poor-quality palliative care, he said.

“Sanctity of life is central to our understanding as Christians,” he said, and cited Psalm 31: “Our times are in his hands”.

Terminally ill people with depression, and people with disabilities, including learning disabilities, would be put at risk if legislation was changed, Dr Eyre said.

The Suicide Act 1961 prohibits assisted suicide, although directions from the Crown Prosecution Service published in 2010 require that any prosecution be in the “public interest”.

Several attempts have been made in recent years to introduce legislation that would permit assisted suicide in some circumstances, most recently in the form of a Bill in the House of Lords, which failed to reach a Second Reading before Parliament was prorogued in April.

Dr Eyre conceded that palliative care “sometimes fails to deliver”, but said that “the response to this should be to improve palliative care rather than make changes to the Suicide Act.”

In a background note that accompanied the motion, the secretary-general of the Archbishops’ Council, William Nye, wrote that the C of E “has been adamant in its rejection of a change in the current law in Parliament” (News, 1 July).

Mr Nye’s paper, along with an explanatory note provided by Dr Eyre, was described by Emily Hill (Hereford) as “heavily biased towards this motion, with no alternative view being offered”.

She supported the call for adequate funding for palliative care, but opposed the motion because, she said, it was wrong to oppose assisted dying in all its forms. She recommended that the Synod give more time and attention to the issue.

Ms Hill also cited Psalm 31, but asked: “Why can we prolong life, but not appropriately assist people to end it ever so slightly earlier to ensure peace?”

Most of the other contributors to the debate spoke in favour of the motion. Fiona MacMillan (London) noted that, in Canada, where voluntary euthanasia has been legalised, some have said that it’s “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, and that she feared that any change to the law would exacerbate discrimination against disabled people and leave them more vulnerable.

Several members of the Synod shared moving testimonies about end-of-life care. 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”.

Sam Atkins/Church TimesFiona MacMillan (London)

We shouldn’t necessarily see assisted dying as shortening life, she said, “but as shortening death”, and that this was also part of caring for the vulnerable.

Other speakers who had experienced the death of loved ones supported the motion. 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, noting that this course of action would have prevented them from spending their final months together.

The focus, Dr Inge said, should be on “allowing people to live with dignity, not assisting them to die”.

Three other bishops spoke in the debate, including the Bishop of London, the Rt Revd Sarah Mullally, a former Chief Nursing Officer. She 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.

A “slippery slope” argument was used by several contributors to suggest that, if legislation was changed to allow terminally ill people in great pain to be helped to die, this would, in time, lead to a wide category of people being eligible to seek assisted dying.

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.

In a letter to the Church Times published last week, Canon Rosie Harper had written: “More than 80 per cent of religious people want a compassionate new law. Still, a few senior church leaders claim that their moral insight is superior to that of the common person. I sincerely hope that our leaders will come to see how much good they could do by supporting assisted dying” (Letters, 8 July).

The motion, Dr Eyre said in his introduction, provided “the opportunity to disprove the misconception that Anglicans are in support of assisted dying”, and that bishops are opposed to it when ordinary members are in favour.

The motion was carried by a counted vote of the whole Synod: 289 in favour, 25 against, with 33 recorded abstentions.

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