Church Leaders Unite in Opposition to Assisted Dying Bill

Church leaders from across the denominational spectrum have united in opposition to Lord Joffe’s assisted dying bill, as the findings of the Lords select committee on assisted dying are introduced for debate in the House of Lords Monday.

|TOP|The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, was joined by Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, head of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales, and the Anglican Bishop of Oxford, the Rt Rev Richard Harries, in voicing opposition to the bill, which Lord Joffe plans to introduce late this month or early November.

The Archbishop of Canterbury backed the Church of England’s profound opposition to assisted suicide, despite watching his mother’s slow, painful death.

In an interview with the Mail on Sunday, Dr Williams described sitting with his mother, Nancy, in the final months of dementia. He said, however, that he was still opposed to assisted dying “chiefly on the grounds of my religious commitments – the conviction that life is a gift from God that we cannot treat as a possession of our own to keep or throw away as we choose”.

He continued: I sat by my mother in her last painful months of decline and dementia. I should be the last person to understate what this feels like, or to deny that in such circumstances you can find yourself desperately wishing for it all to be over.

“But I don’t know now how much this had to do with my own distress and feeling of helplessness.”

Lord Joffe announced he may drop the most controversial proposals in his proposed bill, which would legalise euthanasia, in order to garner more support.

He was quoted in The Herald as saying on Sunday: “I am thinking of limiting the bill to physician-assisted suicide and not seeking for it to include voluntary euthanasia.”

|QUOTE|The 73-year-old Lord Joffe referred to the case of Oregan, U.S., where physician-assisted suicide, in which the doctor simply prescribes the drugs for the patients to take themselves, has already been introduced and which he described as working very well.

The Christian Medical Fellowship, which represents 5,000 UK doctors, however, issued a stern warning to parliament and the public not to be deceived by moves to legalise physician-assisted dying.

CMF General Secretary, Peter Saunders commented: We remain opposed to these moves to make assisted dying more palatable. A lot of pressure has been exerted to convince peers and the public that PAS is not ‘euthanasia proper’. But the key issue is intention.

“There is no moral difference between PAS and euthanasia. In both cases what the doctor means to do is to bring about the death of the patient. He or she is the moral agent without whom the death could not happen. PAS is simply euthanasia “one step back”,” he said.

The CMF also warned that PAS would also inevitably introduce an element of coercion by placing pressure on patients to request PAS in order not to burden relatives, carers, or a society short of resources.

Cardinal Murphy-O’Connor said he believes the Bill will be defeated in the Lords. Speaking on BBC1’s Sunday AM, he said if the new proposals became law, Britain would cross a “moral Rubicon”.

“I would be against this law, not because I haven’t got sympathy but I also have sympathy for the law which protects life,” he said.

The Rt Rev Richard Harries also wrote in The Observer that it was wrong to elevate the principle of choice above all other values.

The assisted dying bill has seen an unusual display of unity across faiths, akin to that displayed after the July terrorist attacks in London.

Nine leading figures from the six major faith groups in the UK joined forces in opposing any change to the law on assisted dying in an open letter published Friday.

Signatories of the letter include Bimal Krishna das, General Secretary of the UK National Council of Hindu Temples, Sheikh Dr M.A. Zaki Badawi, Principal of the Muslim College and Chair of the Muslim Law Sharia Council, and Joel Edwards, General Director of the Evangelical Alliance.

In the letter the leaders stress that any change in the law on assisted suicide would radically alter the moral basis of our society by severely undermining respect for life. The leaders support instead the minimisation of suffering through improved palliative care, which they believe seeks to underpin the sanctity of human life.

The Rt Rev Christopher Herbert, Bishop of St Albans, welcomed the letter. He said: “As a member of the House of Lords Select Committee I warmly welcome the stance taken by leaders of the faith communities in our country.

“It indicates the gravity and breadth of concern felt by many in the country about the possible Bill, a concern which deserves to be taken with the utmost seriousness,” he said.

Lord Joffe’s Bill ran out of parliamentary time when it was introduced last year. The Government currently has a neutral stance on assisted dying and will listen to the debate as well as give MPs and peers a free vote on any Bill to come before them.