Change to assisted suicide law may harm vulnerable, Christians warn

The Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer QC outlined draft guidance on Wednesday on the circumstances likely to lead to the arrest of an individual for helping someone to die. Starmer was asked to draw up the guidelines after multiple sclerosis sufferer Debbie Purdy won an appeal from Law Lords to have the law on assisted suicide clarified.

Under the draft policy, assisted suicide remains a criminal offence, while euthanasia clinics like Dignitas in Switzerland would still be illegal in the UK. It went into immediate effect across England and Wales and will be the subject of a 12-week consultation period before a final policy is issued early next year.

The Church of England, which has consistently voted against any change in the law on assisted suicide, was cautious in its response towards the draft policy.

“Guidance from the DPP about the application of the present law to particular circumstances has the potential to provide greater clarity and is in principle to be welcomed, so long as there can be confidence that it will not in practice lead to an erosion of respect for the present law,” it said.

“There are serious moral, ethical and practical issues to consider - for example in relation to concepts such as 'encouragement' and the nature of 'informed decision making'.

“The Church of England is therefore reserving its position on the detail of the draft guidance at this stage. Its formal submission will be made public in due course."

Catholic Archbishop Peter Smith welcomed the “important and necessary” clarifications on the legal status of assisted suicide and the responsibility of the authorities to investigate each case, but warned that any weakening of the legal protection of vulnerable people “would carry with it great dangers”.

“I would not be seeking to argue that every criminal case should be prosecuted – there can indeed be a particular combination of circumstances which will justify in a specific case a decision not to prosecute in the public interest,” he said.

“But such decisions can only be made on a case by case basis, and what is imperative is that any general guidance does not obscure the bright line of the law, which must remain clear and evident to all.

“With this in mind, the Bishops’ Conference will be studying the draft guidance very carefully and taking expert legal advice in preparing our own response to the consultation.”
The director of the Christian Legal Centre, Andrea Williams, warned that the guidelines would “cause great harm to individuals and society” and risked further liberalisation.

She said the UK should learn from other jurisdictions where assisted suicide had already been legalised.

“Very soon, elderly and vulnerable people surveyed by researchers report a shift in perception towards seeing themselves as a burden on their families and being under a ‘duty to die’,” she said.

“Additionally, we are concerned that the system will be open to abuse and to a creeping, ever-widening application, which has been observed in previous cases in our own legal history where laws have been injudiciously liberalised.

“We shall do all we can to raise awareness of these underestimated factors in the run up to the consultation.”

The Care Not Killing coalition, headed by the General Secretary of the Christian Medical Fellowship Dr Peter Saunders, also warned of the potential for abuse where those assisting in the suicide stood to gain personally from the death of a sick individual.

Scotland’s top law officer, Lord Advocate Elish Angiolini, said there were no plans to issue similar guidelines north of the border.

The vice convener of the Church of Scotland’s Church and Society Council said he did not want to see the guidance in England and Wales set a precedent for Scotland.

"When someone is suffering so much that they conclude their life is intolerable, our response and that of society, must be to do whatever it takes, in love and at whatever cost to ourselves, to help them find hope and rediscover their potential for living,” he said.

"The Church remains very concerned these guidelines will have the consequence of making some of our most vulnerable citizens even more vulnerable. We remain opposed to assisted suicide and do not want to see any moves to normalise it.

“We hope the present legal situation in Scotland will not be changed, and that the guidance in England and Wales is not seen as setting a precedent.”