The Assisted Dying Bill poses a murderous threat to society
Niall GoochI have a soft spot for George Carey, the last Archbishop of Canterbury but one. Aged 11, I accompanied my parents to a drinks reception at the Old Palace in Canterbury – my father was about to be ordained priest – and I spent as much time as possible hiding in a corner reading a book. Carey saw me and brought me a bowl of crisps to munch through as I read.
Unfortunately, however, he has blotted his copybook. Some years ago, he announced he was in favour of euthanasia, calling it “profoundly Christian” and saying that there was “nothing holy about agony”. In 2015, he supported Rob Marris MP’s Assisted Dying (No2) Bill, which was eventually resoundingly defeated in the House of Commons, but only after a huge challenge from pro-life groups and parliamentarians.
Once we have admitted into law the principle that patients can be intentionally killed, it is very difficult to control the wider application of that principle
Now the issue is back before Parliament once again, and Carey’s advocacy has re-emerged because it has been countered by his successor, Rowan Williams. As reported by the Herald, the Lords will debate Baroness Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill on October 22. This Bill closely resembles the Bills brought forward by Lord Joffe in 2006 and Lord Falconer in 2014, also the Bill put forward in the Scottish Parliament by former MSP Margo Macdonald in 2010. Alarmingly, just this week the British Medical Association voted at its Annual General Meeting to withdraw its longstanding opposition to assisted suicide, opting instead for the so-called “neutral” position. There is of course no such thing,
The fundamental moral issues at stake have not changed.
A grave problem with assisted suicide is that once we have admitted into law the principle that patients can be intentionally killed, it is very difficult to control the wider application of that principle. This is because of the way that law operates.
It is exactly what has happened in, for instance, the Netherlands. Assisted suicide was once an option for a few people in very severe pain whereas it is now an offering available to teenagers with depression and people who have nothing physically wrong with them but are “tired of life”. Frighteningly, assisted suicide is also available to non-responsive patients who may not have made any request to be killed. In 2015, a Belgian study reported that the vast majority of 100 “patients” seeking an early death at one clinic had at least one psychiatric disorder. More than half suffered from depression. Many of them were given euthanasia. A Dutch study in the same year recorded similar findings: one clinic allowed euthanasia for 11 patients who claimed simply to be “tired of living”.
Any weakening of the legal prohibition on intentional killing in English law would set an awful – indeed a murderous – precedent, because it establishes the principle in medical law whereby euthanasia is considered to be in a patient’s best interests.
The present total ban on deliberate killing means patients do not have to worry about their lives becoming a burden to others, or that they are wasting resources. This latter point is especially important, due to the additional financial pressure placed on the NHS as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Thou shalt not kill
Ending someone’s life is cheap. Looking after a very sick person is not.
The Church does not insist that human life should always be preserved at any cost in all circumstances. What the Church does say, quite simply, is that it is wrong to act with the intention of ending a human life, and that people must always be treated with dignity. This teaching can be traced back to the very earliest days of the faith, and ultimately to the Ten Commandments: “thou shalt not kill”. It is not wrong to discontinue a medical treatment that has become over-burdensome or futile. But there is a crucial distinction between this and intentional murder.
We must hope and pray for the defeat of the Meacher Bill on 22 October. Some doors are easy to open, and very hard to close.
Niall Gooch is a Chapter House columnist