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Changes to assisted-dying law of ‘deep concern’ to Scottish faith groups

26 May 2023

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CHURCHES and other faith groups in Scotland have expressed their opposition to a proposed law that would allow assisted dying in the country.

Church of Scotland, Roman Catholic, and Muslim leaders have voiced “deep concern” about any change to the current law, saying that it would “inevitably undermine the dignity of the human person” in a statement last week.

On Wednesday, however, members of the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly voted in favour of re-examining the Church’s blanket opposition to assisted dying. 

The General Assembly had been invited to reaffirm the Church’s opposition to assisted dying, but instead a countermotion was passed which acknowledged a range of theological views on the issue, and sought to allow a “window of space and grace” for further discussion of assisted dying.

The Faith Impact Forum, which brought the original motion, has been charged to explore the issue more deeply, and to report back to a future General Assembly.

The convenor of the forum, the Revd Karen Hendry, said: “The conversations that we had (in the General Assembly hall) were very deep and meaningful and took us to a very human place. Out of that we have got to a point where we can pause and think more deeply about this very important issue.”

Last week, the outgoing Moderator of the Church of Scotland, Dr Iain Greenshields, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Paisley, the Rt Revd John Keenan, and the Imam of Dundee Central Mosque, Shaykh Hamza Khandwalla, signed a joint statement at an event at the Scottish parliament.

They were responding to a Private Member’s Bill introduced by the Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP for the Orkney Islands, Liam McArthur, which would allow assisted dying if two doctors agreed that the patient was terminally ill, and had mental capacity to make the decision to end their life.

Mr McArthur launched a consultation process along with the Bill when it was first proposed in September 2021, to which a number of faith groups have responded.

In a response filed in November 2021, the Church in Society Committee of the Scottish Episcopal Church (SEC) emphasises the importance of “dying well”, and, while stating opposition to the proposed legislation, concede that it “comes from a place of care and compassion”.

The committee, which is a sub-group of the SEC’s Mission Board, said: “The prohibition of killing, shared by the SEC in common with all other Christian churches and derived from traditions shared in common with Judaism and Islam, embodies a wide-ranging and profound tradition of moral wisdom, teaching us to value life and compassion for life in all its needs.”

The four-page response asks “whether the tradition could coherently evolve to allow for a measure of self-initiated death within a spiritually authentic and pastorally supportive context of this kind”. It concludes that churches “have hitherto resisted this and for the most part still do”.

The committee warns that “cries for help should not be confused with the desire for assisted dying. Scotland should ensure that it is not driven down the cheaper option of assisted dying than providing good palliative care for all.”

The response, however, also expresses concern that “it would be cruel to deny people whose death is so imminent and inevitable, and who do not share our perspective, an avenue to end their lives safely.”

The full narrative response is more equivocal than that submitted by the Church of Scotland, which, in addition to extrapolation of Christian doctrine, responds directly to the questions posed in the consultation, stating that the Church of Scotland is “fully opposed” to a prospective change in the law.

Last summer, the General Synod of the Church of England passed a motion urging the UK Government to maintain the current prohibition against assisted dying, while calling for improvements in palliative care (News, 11 July 2022).

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