As I write this, the House of Lords is engaged in what will be a gruelling ten hour debate leading up to the second reading of Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill. 133 Lords are set to speak, which will be a record.
This incredible number exemplifies the level of feeling and concerns this bill has generated. It’s been amazing to see the amount that has been written and published on it too. There have been some outstanding pieces and also a fair amount of drivel – my contributions can be found here and here (I leave the reader to decide on which end of the spectrum mine sit). I don’t want to go over these here though. It feels like everything that needs to be said has been done so several times over and more besides. Instead I want to take a moment to reflect on how the lead up to this contentious Bill has been handled by the media.
Up until yesterday for someone who has little love for what I consider to be a deeply flawed bill, it’s been pretty depressing following the coverage. The pro-assisted dying lobby are a slick and well oiled machine and it’s most vociferous cheerleaders have been out in force to bang the battered right-to-die drum. In contrast the voices of opposition, at least in the secular mainstream media, have been few and far between. Having spent some time attempting to record as many articles as possible from the papers and the BBC over he last week that have either had an opinion piece or an item on an individual or group with a partisan view, the results have been stark. There have been 34 pieces with strongly held views in favour of assisted dying and only 8 against. In the last day and a bit at least there has been a noticeable increase in the voices opposing the bill. This is partly because the BBC has produced various interviews, being very careful to finally balance their coverage and also because the Guardian somewhat surprisingly came out strongly against the bill and also published a powerful piece by the Bishop of Worcester whose wife died of cancer in April. Andrew Lloyd Webber has also revealed that he contacted Dignitas whilst struggling with depression last year seeking to end his life, but now believes that taking such action would have been “stupid and ridiculous”.
It’s not that those in favour have more to talk about, it’s more that the same things have been said more frequently. Predictably, so much of this talk has been emotive and far less has been focused on the mechanics of what assisted dying would look like in practice. ComRes have published a poll today that finds that although 73 per cent of the public back assisted dying in principle, this dwindles to 43% when they are presented with (mostly empirical) arguments against it. Doctors who need to be listened to and considered more than any other group still overwhelmingly oppose assisted dying, but you probably wouldn’t know it from the coverage in the last few weeks.
Having trawled the internet it has become apparent that much of what has been driving the media coverage has been the religious aspect. Sometimes this has been from commentators complaining that religion is an unwelcome and irrelevant distraction, but mostly it has been the views of Christian individuals making the headlines. The majority of these have unsurprisingly involved the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey and his out-of-the-blue decision to turn tables and join the pro camp. Justin Welby’s piece for the Times on Saturday was drowned out by Carey’s announcement and this was then further compounded by Desmond Tutu getting in on the act. It was a massive coup for those supporters of Falconer’s bill and the media lapped it up.
This may have been the biggest story to come out, but probably also the one that highlights the worst aspects of the way issues can be clouded and their importance exaggerated in the media. Lord Carey may be a former Archbishop of Canterbury, but he is now well and truly retired. He no longer works for the Church of England in any capacity. He is perfectly entitled to his opinion, however when he talks, the only person he speaks on behalf of now is himself. He is not representing the wider Christian community and no longer holds any authority, which is probably just as well given some of the unhelpful remarks and comments he has made over the last few years. Sadly though as we’ve seen, he appears to have forgotten that despite the lack of authority his words can still have a considerable and destabilising impact. The fact that his views have changed as a result of the case of Tony Nicklinson’s locked-in syndrome is even more disappointing given that Nicklinson’s appeal to die would have been rejected under the terms of this Assisted Dying Bill.
If you look for Christians within the Church who have publicly engaged with the press, speaking in favour of Lord Falconer’s Bill, there are only four who come to mind. Carey and Tutu are the first two. Desmond Tutu is in the same position of retirement as Carey and has only actually said that he is neutral towards assisted dying. The other two Bishop Alan Wilson who is well known for his outspoken liberal views and his chaplain, Canon Rosie Harper, who appears repeatedly in the news offering soundbites. which regularly criticise the Church of England’s official position on the right to die.
On Wednesday Justin Welby signed a letter opposing the Bill along with leaders from 11 different denominations and leaders from other major religions. This was a massive display of unity from the representatives of millions of believers around this country. It has been the single biggest act in the build up to today’s debate and yet received very limited attention. Rosie Harper received almost as much when she accused the leaders of scaremongering. She may have had an uncle who died at Dignitas in Switzerland, but I’m not sure that gives her the authority to claim the moral high ground and casually dismiss the words of so many prominent leaders on such an important subject.
So it’s four representing themselves against 23 representing a rather bigger number of people. Simple maths would suggest that those faith leaders deserved to be heard many more times over, but of course maths doesn’t come into play when the press are involved. Fortunately it does when it comes to voting in Parliament. The media do their own job in their own way putting the most sensational stories and characters at the top of the billing whilst those who are worth listening to so often do not receive the same treatment. The job of the Lords today is to separate objective reasoning from emotion and the compassionate from the dangerous. It’s a tough ask for the Lords, especially as many of the public are unable to do the same. They need all the wisdom and guidance hey can get to make the right decision that won’t leave us with the seriously ill putting an end to their lives for a host of wrong reasons.
At least it has been the case that religious principles and values have been on the agenda so far despite the best efforts of some who believe the sanctity of life is an outdated concept. It’s just a shame that this is another area where the impression through the media is that Christians are now divided on a subject more so than is most likely the case thanks to interventions from one or two outspoken individuals who should know better.