Following interventions by a few high profile Christians, some people are suggesting that the Church of England’s position on the ‘Assisted Dying Bill’ lacks clarity. For once, nothing could be further from the truth. In February 2012 the current law was debated by General Synod, a representative body made up of bishops, clergy and lay people. No member of Synod voted against a resolution to support the law as it stands. It is relatively unusual to find an issue which attracts such an overwhelming consensus of opinion. This is one such issue, and the reasons for that massive level of agreement were well rehearsed.
Foremost among them is the view – shared by many people of other faiths and none – that every person’s life has an intrinsic value regardless of circumstance. Whatever they themselves or other people may think of their ‘value’ to society, and despite any apparent lack of productivity or usefulness, nothing can alter their essential significance as human beings. To agree that some of us are more valuable than others when it comes to being alive would be to cross an ethical Rubicon. Until now, our society has regarded this as self-evident. That is why we have ‘suicide watch’ in prisons; and why we try to stop people killing themselves by jumping off bridges or cliffs or high buildings. It is why doctors undertake to give only ‘beneficial’ treatment to their patients, and why we attach so much importance to human rights legislation.
Then there is our fundamental responsibility as a ‘civilised’ society to care for and protect the most vulnerable among us. According to Action on Elder Abuse, each year in the UK some 500,000 elderly people suffer abuse, often at the hands of family members; and it is impossible to provide adequate safeguards against emotional coercion when it comes to elderly or disabled people feeling they are a burden on others and have a ‘duty’ to end their lives. No wonder so many of our disability charities are deeply concerned about the potential implications of Lord Falconer’s ‘Assisted Dying’ Bill. ‘Where there’s a will there’s a relative’ has been one of the more memorable sound-bites from the current debate in the House of Lords; and there are many who believe that this Bill would be the thin end of an extremely large and dangerous wedge.
Those who support the Bill suggest that it is the only truly ‘compassionate’ way forward. Given some of the heart-rending stories we have all heard, it is of course impossible not to have sympathy with that point of view. But it is only half the truth. We cannot change laws to accommodate the few at the expense of the many. ‘Compassion’ is at the heart of the arguments against this Bill as well as those for it.
There are plenty more points to be made about this, including the potential effect of a change to the law on the doctor-patient relationship. I for one don’t relish the euphemistic use of the word ‘medicine’ to mean a lethal dose of poison – especially as I grow older! And you don’t have to be a doctor to know that it is notoriously difficult to determine whether or not someone has ‘less than six months left to live’; or a psychiatrist to realise that a ‘settled mind’ (when it comes to life and death decision-making) is often far from straightforward.
But in the end much of the debate boils down to two little words: choice and control. ‘Shouldn’t we respect individual freedom and autonomy?’, argue those in favour of the Bill. ‘Of course,’ argue those against – but not when it undermines the principles I have already mentioned. So how, argue those in favour, can we countenance persisting with situations in which people have no control over their own bodies, or the time and place of their own death? Certainly many of us fear being “dependent” on others, and independence is highly prized in our society. But perhaps we need to learn afresh the value of ‘interdependence’, and the sort of dignity that can come not only from being cared for but also from caring. Cicely Saunders was quite forthright about this, and so are some disabled opponents of Lord Falconer’s Bill.
A huge number of amendments have been proposed for the Bill. Some have already been debated, and it has been agreed that assisted suicide should be a matter for the courts rather than the medical profession to determine. This helps – but from the Church of England’s point of view does not make assisted suicide itself more acceptable. Our position remains absolutely clear. As a matter of principle we are opposed to assisted suicide, and in favour of retaining the current law together with the guidelines issued by a former DPP.
James Newcome is the Church of England’s lead bishop on health care and first published this piece at the Huffington Post.