Comments: Faith leaders unite to condemn assisted dying law

So, just as over the same sex marriage issue, they are completely out of touch of what society at large now believes. How extraordinary to find Desmond Tutu and George Carey on the same side of the argument against all the rest.

Posted by Richard Ashby at Wednesday, 16 July 2014 at 11:38am BST

"So, just as over the same sex marriage issue, they are completely out of touch of what society at large now believes."

Actually, it more obviously out of touch than for the same sex marriage issue. The polling for well-conducted studies is about 70/30 in favour

I suppose that having finally decided to surrender on women bishops, and realising that a last-ditch defence of homophobia is going to end badly, Welby now wants another doomed cause to help him feel martyred over.

Posted by Interested Observer at Wednesday, 16 July 2014 at 12:18pm BST

In general Unitarians support the legislation (obviously not everyone).

Posted by Pluralist at Wednesday, 16 July 2014 at 2:15pm BST

If we got in touch with 'what society now believes' we'd be backing capital punishment too. Society can be wrong. The polling results might have something to do with the thoroughly one-sided account of the debate provided by the BBC in recent years.

Posted by David Keen at Wednesday, 16 July 2014 at 4:08pm BST

I do not think this divides on the usual fault lines.
I have spent decades trying to persuade people NOT to commit suicide, and worked for nine years with desperately ill babies and terminally ill children.
As I have said on an earlier thread, I do not recognise this as a free choice, suicide is always as a result of coercion of one form or another. There are a few very hard cases, but they do not make good law.

Posted by Martin Reynolds at Wednesday, 16 July 2014 at 5:04pm BST

If coercion were the real concern, you'd see an equally vehement campaign to end a patient's right to withdraw from treatment. You don't, so it isn't. This is about religious leaders demanding that others suffer for their beliefs.

The arrogance and condescension that goes into comments like this beggars belief: "The bill raises the issue of what sort of society we wish to become: one in which life is to be understood primarily in terms of its usefulness and individuals evaluated in terms of their utility or one in which every person is supported, protected and cherished even if, at times, they fail to cherish themselves."

Perhaps, Justin, just perhaps, a person wracked 24/7 by pain, incontinent and immobile, knows more about what's best for them than you do? If being forced to endure such torture is being cherished, then perhaps, just perhaps, they can do with it?

Posted by James Byron at Wednesday, 16 July 2014 at 9:25pm BST

It should be worrying to the church when it is obviously disengaged from the priorities and beliefs of society at large, but it doesn't follow from this that the church should meekly follow whatever happens to be the prevailing fashion of our culture. If some conservatives and evangelicals go too far in stressing the opposition between "Christ and culture," some liberals seem to go much too far the other way.

If the church is to support gay marriage it must be because we can develop a specifically Christian theological response to the question of gay marriage (which I think we're well on the way to doing), and not simply because we accept secular utilitarian or libertarian arguments about human sexuality. Likewise, if the church is to support assisted dying it must be because we are confident we can justify this position in Christian moral and theological terms. I am very far from believing that we have anything like a coherent Gospel-centred pro-euthanasia argument at this stage, Desmond Tutu and George Carey notwithstanding.

Posted by rjb at Wednesday, 16 July 2014 at 9:31pm BST

This is a matter of current conscience for us in Québec also. While I adhere broadly to a consistent life ethic, no one has the right to decide for me when Enough is Enough.

Posted by Geoff at Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 4:24am BST

Discussed this recently with a distinguished academic friend suffering from Parkinson's. He thought that such legislation would inevitably follow the trajectory of the 1960s abortion bill: notwithstanding (rjb style) all the apparent safeguards, there'd be far too much of the practical phenomenon.

Posted by John at Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 4:33am BST

Unitarians are not Christians..they don't believe in the Holy Trinity.

Posted by robert Ian williams at Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 7:01am BST

It's terribly hard to control peoples' lives and make them give you money when they're dead. Then, they just go on to God, and - let's be honest - He doesn't seem to give a hang about the stuff that is vital to those who've spent their lives trying to become dominant in the variou ecclesial structures. When they're dead, they're out of your control.

Posted by MarkBrunson at Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 7:44am BST

" Likewise, if the church is to support assisted dying"

What the church's own members want to do is their business. As with the old joke about same-sex marriage ("how to avoid same-sex marriage: don't marry someone of the same sex") it's entirely up to people how they wish to behave in this regard. However, what the church wants to do both with same-sex marriage and with assisted dying is to deny everyone something just because it is rejected by (some of) their own members.

Catholics allegedly disapprove of contraception (although it doesn't appear to stop them from using it) but no-one would take seriously a campaign by them to criminalise it for everyone else, and they have enough sense not to try: the days when the moral pronouncements of the RCC in England were listened to by anyone outside the RCC are long gone. The CofE's mistake is to believe it can act as a moral beacon to the country, when its behaviour over women bishops shows that it is only capable of doing the right thing with a gun to its head. Motes, beams, etc.

Posted by Interested Observer at Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 9:37am BST

I keep seeing sentences like: 'it must be because we can develop a specifically Christian theological response to the question of gay marriage', secular people only seeing people 'in terms of usefulness'... etc. Why should there be such a peculiar Christian version of ethics? Why even assume that ethics are a matter of revelation, something that would otherwise escape our comprehension. It blatantly is not, the church is not necessarily called to be 'countercultural', just good.

Posted by Lorenzo Fernandez-Vicente at Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 10:52am BST

I do not agree with James Byron's analogy , but I was impressed today by the voices of disabled people arguing against the Bill. We have two disabled lads and in the past have seen medication used inappropriately to silence kids like ours.
The law should stay as it is.

Posted by Martin Reynolds at Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 6:04pm BST

Couldn't agree more, Interested Observer & Lorenzo. :-)

Theology should play no part in secular law. If church representatives lack a good secular argument against a law, they ought to abstain, not impose their theology on everyone else.

I particularly agree with Lorenzo's point about the false separation between Christian and secular ethics. Demanding a theological argument is a ghetto mentality. Good arguments are good arguments, period. What's sauce for the goose ...

Posted by James Byron at Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 7:27pm BST

The faith leaders' statement is exactly that, a faith leaders' statement. It's particularly impressive to have New Testament Church of God, Elim, Assemblies of God, Church of God of Prophecy, lined up alongside so many other more traditional Christian denominations and a very wide variety of other faiths. So any suggestion that "Welby wants another doomed cause" or reference to "the CofE's mistake" isn't supported by the evidence. There are 23 other signatures on this statement above the archbishop's, 23 people who won't hesitate to tell him they disagree with him if they do disagree with him. So while no faith leader can speak for all their people, we have got evidence of a widespread faith-based opposition to the Assisted Dying Bill.

Posted by Jamie at Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 9:52pm BST

Welby and his camp followers will probably win this one, Jamie.

Their scaremongering has set even the 'Guardian' to fright, and they've made common cause with some prominent disability rights campaigners. (With whom I have far more sympathy, although I still believe they're wrong about assisted suicide.) The coercion argument plays a lot better than their previous nonsense about the destruction of marriage.

It'll be a pyrrhic victory, storing up resentment for religion in general. It shouldn't, as the theological argument (if we must have one) best supports euthanasia. Here, the ancients had it right. Life is sanctified more by the good death than it is by forcing people to die in agony.

Posted by James Byron at Thursday, 17 July 2014 at 11:32pm BST

Jamie, with affection, I don't see aligning ourselves with fundamentalist churches and African pentecostalists, who also like their Bible quite literal, as very impressive. The evidence is that, bar Muslims (and possibly these churches) between two thirds and three quarters of mainstream Catholics, Anglicans, Jews... are in favour of the bill. Those of no faith are overwhelmingly in favour too.

Posted by Lorenzo Fernandez-Vicente at Friday, 18 July 2014 at 6:03am BST

What will happen if it remains illegal is far, far more risky than legalising it.

In Oregon, less than 80 people a year use the provision [1]. 33 thousand people per year die, 25 thousand of them over 65 [2] . So the rate of use of the provision is very low: about one in three hundred deaths of those other sixty five (I'm guessing most users of the provision are over 65, I might be wrong).

Anecdotally, knowledge that the option is there reassures people who don't, in the end, use it. Certainly my intention as I get older will be to stockpile barbiturates and use them while I can: "while I can" is probably an earlier point than would trigger the provisions of an assisted dying scheme. And killing yourself with an amateur overdose is a lot riskier, in all sorts of ways, and has fewer protections. I've seen relatives die for whom palliative care was a sick joke, with doctors refusing adequate pain relief on the grounds that they might get addicted. I don't want to die screaming in order to appease people who think dying in agony is a moral good.



Posted by Interested Observer at Friday, 18 July 2014 at 7:55am BST

The state of Oregon has had a similar law for sometime now (10 years?). It would be interesting to hear from some people lving there, but I believe I heard that very few people actually use it. I don't really think that the law as expressed in this bill will put vulnerable people at risk. The limitation to those with only a very short time left to live seems to exclude 'pressure on the incapacitated' - to me at least.

Posted by Sara MacVane at Friday, 18 July 2014 at 9:08am BST

I've said this on another thread already, but there is a consistent failure amongst religious leaders and commenters to distinguish between what is good, and what is a person's right.

Suppose we accept, for the sake of argument, that suicide and assisted suicide are always morally bad or wrong. It simply does not follow that individuals should therefore not have the right to make their own decision about whether and when to end their life.

Those who deny that individuals have this natural right in fact simply transfer that right to decide to some other individual -- such as a judge, or a doctor, or whoever is appropriately legally empowered.

As Geoff hints in his comment above, those who oppose the right to assisted dying -- and indeed the right to commit suicide -- need to explain why some other individual should get to make a decision over my body that I am myself legally prevented from making. Inevitably it means giving legal priority of one person's set of values over another person's set of values.

Posted by Andrew Wilshere at Friday, 18 July 2014 at 9:56am BST

"there is a consistent failure amongst religious leaders and commenters to distinguish between what is good, and what is a person's right"

The Church of England was one of the key groups that supported the 1961 Suicide Act, which at last stopped the practice of jailing people for attempting to kill themselves. The 1959 publication of "Ought Suicide to Be A Crime? A Discussion of Suicide, Attempted Suicide and the Law" by the church marked a substantial shift in its position. But the debate at the time --- within, of course, the adult lifetime of many of the people now debating assisted suicide --- made many of the arguments being made today, that people would be coerced, that people should face death bravely, etc.

No one, I believe, would now argue for the criminalisation of suicide. Times change, and the church changes with it.

Posted by Interested Observer at Friday, 18 July 2014 at 11:46am BST

I'm with Martin on this. I think any such legislation is eventually dangerous. It's not as if there isn't great practical latitude as it is ('turning people off', etc.).

Posted by John at Friday, 18 July 2014 at 1:55pm BST

Not being entirely familiar with the English rules, I wondered if under the current law patients with terminal illnesses or conditions are permitted to refuse hydration and nutrition, in addition to refusing medical interventions and therapies? This is the case in New York.

My reason for asking is that in this whole conversation I'm a bit hazy about what is held to constitute "suicide" from a moral perspective.

Posted by Tobias Haller at Friday, 18 July 2014 at 2:48pm BST

"('turning people off', etc.)."
isn't going to happen.

Did you see the BMJ editorial that explains this again?

Posted by Erika Baker at Friday, 18 July 2014 at 9:38pm BST

I agree with Martin. I believe that in the present circumstances, with widespread prejudice against disabled people, especially those judged 'useless' e.g. because they are too sick to work, and health and social services under huge strain, legalising assisted dying would be unhelpful. High-quality palliative care can be extremely effective in preventing suffering in most cases, though sadly this is not made available to everyone who could benefit from it, and I think changing this should be a priority.

With regard to the law, Tobias, I believe it is lawful for people with mental capacity to refuse medication and nutrition. Erika, doctors may refuse to give treatment that they believe is against a patient's best interests, e.g. if it is likely to cause much distress with minimal gain, which may involve 'switching off' under certain circumstances (see e.g.

Posted by Savi Hensman at Saturday, 19 July 2014 at 12:03am BST

I have the same questions as Tobias. In the US, we can make choices that relate to not "prolonging the dying process". For example, we can refuse hydration, oxygen, and feeding tubes for ourselves, and for our loved ones, if we have a medical power of attorney (POA). Hospice is increasingly popular, and my experience of their palliative care is excellent. In the US, it is pretty important that ill people have an advocate, like a family member. If I thought for an instant that either of my parents weren't getting the relief from pain that they needed, I could have/can speak up and have it addressed in short order.

I don't know if those options are as readily available here in the UK (I'm in the UK for awhile). I would want to know that every comfort option is in place before even considering a medical exit.

At the very least, it seems like the full range of options should be available. If everything has been done in the way of comfort care, and no medical treatment is in place to prolong the dying process, that might be the time to consider the exit, if the person is clear of mind. Maybe. I'm not comfortable making that judgement for anyone other than myself.

It turns out that many of those things thrust on the dying, CPR, the tubes, and whatnot, don't actually help and often do harm. The UK may be ahead of us on that, but I thought I'd throw it out there as I'm in the middle of it with my mother these days…

Posted by Cynthia at Saturday, 19 July 2014 at 11:39am BST

Thanks for the answers. I'm simply trying to get at the ethics behind the thinking on both sides and I see an inconsistency between allowing a person to choose to die by a slow but "natural" process of not taking hydration or nutrition, as opposed to a quick but "artificial" process of taking -- at one's own hand -- a sedative overdose.

I wonder if somewhere in all of this there is a residual of the "suffering as virtue" meme -- that is, that the hardenss of death by starvation, and the fact that the actual moment of death is not at one's own hand immediately, but after the mediation of some days of withering, somehow expiates the choice to die. The other active meme seems to be "only God can take a life" -- but surely that is religious, not ethical, thinking.

Since I believe in an ethical system that is based more on intention than consequence, I find the distinction between the means by which death comes to be a arbitrary: that is, if it is right or wrong to choose to end one's life before that end would come "naturally" then the means by which one dies is not the issue.

Unless the slower method is preferred to allow for second thoughts or a change of mind.

Posted by Tobias Haller at Saturday, 19 July 2014 at 3:50pm BST


You misunderstand me. 'Turning people off' happens NOW, quite frequently. I do not object to it in principle (obviously, circumstances are crucial). Legislation allowing it introduces a different dimension.

Posted by John at Saturday, 19 July 2014 at 7:01pm BST
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