The former Archbishop of York, John Sentamu’s, speech in the House of Lords opposing the assisted suicide bill


My Lords, in light of the letter that appeared in the Times yesterday, I confirm that I am the former Archbishop of York, I am black—but I am not the holy Desmond Tutu.

Any community, society, institution or legislature that forgets its memory becomes senile. Fifty-four years ago, in 1967, Dame Cicely Saunders founded St Christopher’s Hospice, the first hospice linking expert pain and symptom control, compassionate care, teaching and clinical research. The model is now established worldwide, resulting in the amazing advances in and increased diffusion of palliative care, in which of course Christian practitioners who value human life were pioneers. Frankly, why is this framework for thinking about the clinical management of death regarded as outdated, although some still think it is both/and? We ought to be following the line of approach that has proved itself so successful not only in dealing with pain but in helping the dying achieve peace, which is pastorally so indispensable. This could, no doubt, be Toggle showing location of Column 468extended with more pain research and funding, so that these hospices are no longer depending just on private individuals but become part of our caring for the dying.

I declare an interest: I spent five days and five nights watching my mother, Ruth, dying from cancer of the throat in Trinity Hospice in Clapham. Those days indeed increased our bond. She died in deep peace and when our children came to pay their last respects, they said, “Grandma is at peace”. It was a similar story when the mother of our two foster children died of breast cancer in St Christopher’s Hospice.

Hard cases always make bad law. The voices of those who warn us of the law of unintended consequences must be heeded, especially the noble Baronesses, Lady Masham and Lady Campbell. The death of any person puts burdens on loved ones, but it is at the same time a supreme moment for caring, reconciliation and affectionate service. At the very heart of the problem the Bill purports to resolve, there is an ideal perception of the human being as isolated and autonomous, always in control, always on his or her own, beholden to no one. It is an unreal idea which has constantly to be overcome, in the interests of their living to some good purpose. Of course, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Neuberger, spoke of this very eloquently in his most powerful speech.

The desire to live is always responsive and outward-looking: living for the good goals, living for other people, living for the service of God and the common good. The desire to control one’s death is an attitude premised on the notion that the life of a person succumbing to a fatal illness cannot be a life to be lived. That view should not be recognised by our law, except as a pathology which itself needs addressing.

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