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Opinion: It is time to lift the ban on assisted dying

13 October 2023

George Carey and Jonathan Romain counter objections to changing the law


Canon Rosie Harper, chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, takes part in a demonstration in favour of assisted dying outside the Palace of Westminster, in October 2021

Canon Rosie Harper, chaplain to the Bishop of Buckingham, takes part in a demonstration in favour of assisted dying outside the Palace of Westminster,...

SIGNIFICANT questions for the Bishops have been raised by the latest YouGov poll on assisted dying: the right for someone mentally competent and terminally ill to request life-ending medication.

The poll of 1844 people in England and Wales, commissioned by the campaign group Dignity in Dying, found that three out of four respondents who described their faith as Church of England, Anglican, or Episcopal favoured the ending of the ban in England and Wales.

When so many Christians are in favour, but the Church’s leadership is against it, how solid are the theological and ethical objections that they cite?

The most familiar objection to assisted dying is the sanctity of life — that life is too precious to be ended prematurely, and that it is God alone who should give it and take it. But, while that certainly applies to a person who would otherwise live on for many years, does that still hold if the person is dying anyway? Especially if they are dying in agony?

Palliative care will always be the first option, but, earlier this year, palliative-care experts admitted to the House of Commons Heath and Social Care Select Committee that it cannot help all patients.

At what point should we say “Thou shalt suffer on against thy will,” and when say “You can let go and return to God”? Which is the more compassionate or religious response?

Palliative care will help many to live longer (and it certainly needs more funding), but it is not in opposition to assisted dying. They can complement each other if the patient so wishes.

ANOTHER objection frequently heard from church leaders is more practical: protecting the vulnerable from being pressurised into taking up assisted dying. This needs to be taken seriously, but the answer is not to prevent its being available for genuine cases, but to ensure that the safeguards are watertight.

We should learn from the experiences of other jurisdictions that have the system, especially Oregon, where it has been operating since 1997.

Since then, the parameters have hardly changed, while the take-up rate has remained low (fewer than one per cent of dying people — but very important for those individuals).

Its safety is so well-proved that states across the US, every state in Australia, and the entirety of New Zealand have adopted this model. It means that we have 25 years’ worth of evidence for how it works and its long-term consequences.

Safeguards are robust, including the approval of two independent doctors, a capacity assessment, and a period of reflection. There are transparency, scrutiny, and protection — vital elements.

There are different models of assisted dying around the world. Our Parliament can learn from them, and introduce the best law to suit the needs of dying people here.

It is significant that no country or state that has adopted assisted dying has said: “It is not working — we need to reverse it.” More and more countries are adopting it, and Bills are currently being discussed all around us: in France, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Jersey, and Scotland. What do they sense is right that we don’t?

For those who worry that this is “playing God” — think again. We play God every time we see a person having a heart attack and decide to put them on a defibrillator or give CPR rather than let nature takes its course. We do so every time we give a blood transfusion or provide a road-accident victim with artificial limbs. Should we stop doing that? If we play God to lengthen life, we can also do so to relieve pain and indignity at the end of life.

Moreover, the driver for change is that the current system is so flawed. Those suffering as their end approaches have only bad options before them at present. They can go to the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland, but that means being fit enough to travel, and dying earlier than they might otherwise have chosen.

Alternatively, they can try to take their own life, which is often botched, leaving them worse off than before, or is successful and a terrible memory for relatives and friends. Or they simply suffer on — and their families often report watching terrible and agonising deaths.

IT IS time for change. Doctors sense it, and the British Medical Association has moved from being opposed to assisted dying to being neutral. So, too, have several royal medical colleges — anaesthetists, nurses, physicians, psychiatrists, and surgeons, reflecting how those treating dying patients have changed their views.

Clergy are on the front line, too, and constantly witness both deaths that are peaceful and those that are horrendous. We need to appreciate the former, but alleviate the latter.

There is no theological contradiction between valuing life and wanting a good death. Assisted dying is about shortening the death-throes of those facing unbearable suffering. We should do so precisely because we are people of faith.

The Rt Revd Lord Carey was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1991 to 2002. Dr
Jonathan Romain is Rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue and chair of Dignity in Dying.

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