Thinking Anglicans

‘Should We Legislate to Permit Assisted Dying?’

The final event in this year’s Westminster Faith Debates series took place last week. The debate itself is reported here.

As explained in the advance press release

A YouGov poll commissioned for the final 2013 Westminster Faith Debate on assisted suicide this Thursday sheds light on the reasons people have for supporting or opposing a change in the law on assisted suicide – a change which would make it possible to help someone with an incurable disease die without risk of prosecution for doing so.

And it continues with this:

Most religious people ignore their leaders and support a relaxation of the law.

An absolute majority of religious adherents – i.e. those who identify with a religious tradition – support assisted suicide: 64% of religious people support a change in the law on euthanasia, 21% think the law should be kept as it is, 14% don’t know (sums to 99 due to rounding).

The only constituencies for which this is not true are Baptists, Muslims and Hindus. (See Appendix 3)

Adherents of all other traditions favour a change in the law. In doing so many are rejecting the official message given by their religious leaders.

  • Anglicans are in favour of change by a margin of 57% (total in favour 72%) – which is greater even than the general population at 54% (total in favour 70%). Only those who say they have those “no religion” show greater support – by a huge margin of 72% (total in favour 81%).
  • Roman Catholics are in favour of change by a margin of 26%,
  • Jewish people are in favour of change by a margin of 48%
  • Although many Hindus don’t know, those with a view are in favour of change by a margin of 8%.

Those who actively participate in a church or other religious group – rather than merely identifying with a religion – also support change (49% support, 36% against, 15% don’t know; see Appendix 3 for a breakdown by tradition)

Those who say they have “no religion” are most likely to support a change in the law – 81% for, 9% against. The vast majority (87%) do so because they believe in a person’s right to choose when to die.

The full results of that survey are available (PDF).

The survey is discussed in some detail by Clive Field in an article at British Religion in Numbers titled Assisted Dying and Other News

The British public overwhelmingly (70%, with just 16% in disagreement) favours a change in the law to enable persons with incurable diseases to have the right to ask close friends or relatives to help them commit suicide, and without those friends or relatives running the risk of prosecution (as is currently the case). Moreover, while those who profess no religion are especially likely (81% versus 9%) to support reform, even people of faith back it overall (64% versus 21%), with the conspicuous exception of Muslims, who take the contrary line (by 55% to 26%). A plurality (49%, with 36% against) of individuals who actively participate in a religious group also wants to see the law amended. Not until we reach the ‘strict believers’ – the 9% of the population who take their authority in life from religious sources, who certainly believe in God, and who actively participate in a religious group – is there a religious core hostile to legalizing assisted dying and thus in tune with the teaching of many mainstream faiths and denominations. These believers’ motivations are that ‘human life is sacred’ (80%) and/or ‘death should take its natural course’ (69%).

… Assisted dying has been a contested matter for decades. The campaign organization now known as Dignity in Dying was founded as the Voluntary Euthanasia Legalisation Society as far back as 1935. Soon afterwards, in 1937, Gallup conducted the first opinion poll on the subject, asking its sample whether ‘doctors should be given power to end the life of a person incurably ill’, and finding that 69% thought that they should. The proportion in favour of physician-assisted suicide has grown since, hovering around four-fifths in six British Social Attitudes Surveys from 1983 to 2008; in 2008 it stood at 82% (90% for those of no religion, 85% for Anglicans, 75% for Catholics, 70% for other Christians, and 63% for non-Christians). Endorsement of non-doctor-assisted suicide has run at a somewhat lower but still high level; a question worded not dissimilarly to that in the Westminster Faith Debates poll, asking about a change in the law to enable friends and relatives to assist in a suicide, was posed by YouGov on five occasions between 2008 and 2012, recording majorities for legislative reform of between 68% and 74%. However, it should be noted that the public is less approving of suicide in instances where an incurable disease does not exist; indeed, in the most recent (January 2013) Angus Reid poll only 29% of Britons deemed suicide in general to be morally acceptable.

Today’s Church Times publishes a letter from Professor Linda Woodhead under the headline Unhelpful comments from Church House in which she says that “the Church of England’s Communications Office is making the C of E look ridiculous”.

…The C of E Communications Office simply attacked the survey (which it did not ask to see), and concluded: “This survey adds nothing of value to the current complex debate on assisted suicide, but seeks to reduce to ‘sound-bites’ issues that deserve proper and full consideration.”

In fact, the survey adds considerable new knowledge. Its findings were extensively debated at the Westminster Faith Debate on euthanasia last week. It was also featured in The Times, the Telegraph and Guardian, BBC News Online, The Washington Post, the BMJ, on Radio 4, and elsewhere.

Last week, another large poll reported in The Independent found that many single Christians felt isolated and out of place in their congregations. A C of E spokesperson (unnamed) commented: “If the church doesn’t fit then try another one.”

“Get lost” is not a good message for the Church to give, whether directed at serious research, or at the Christians whose views it reports.

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Interested Observer
Interested Observer
11 years ago

The CofE should be very careful of employing a strategy of assuming that everyone agrees with them. Any organisation that tries to claim a moral authority and support it manifestly doesn’t have will find itself ignored by politicians, and that steady erosion of credibility will have more wide-ranging effects. The CofE has been ignored, and some would argue pointedly ignored, over same-sex marriage, which does not enjoy anything like the support amongst the general public that assisted dying does. If a small evangelical hardcore of Anglicans wish to make common cause with a small number of religious Muslims, then it… Read more »

David Shepherd
David Shepherd
11 years ago

‘The CofE has been ignored, and some would argue pointedly ignored, over same-sex marriage’. I’m no fan of UKIP, but it’s success in the recent UK local government elections demonstrates the church’s stance on same-sex marriage has only been ‘ignored’ by a majority of mainstream politicians, but NOT the general voting public who elected them to power. Of course, even if there’s no more room for a dissenting position in the forum of liberal orthodoxy, there’s another far more powerful forum of an angry electorate who are tired that their right to decide on these issues is being ignored high-handed,… Read more »

Martin Reynolds
Martin Reynolds
11 years ago

But this style of attacking something without any real understanding as we see here is abusive. It is part of a culture within the Church that needs to be rooted out.

The trouble is, someone might actually think this is “robust” in the first case and “practical ” or even “funny” in the second.

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