The assisted dying debate has been dominated by Christian voices – sadly in disagreement

Carey Assisted DyingAs 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.



Categories: Archbishop of Canterbury, Euthanasia, Morals & ethics, Parliament

Tags: , , , , , ,

20 replies

  1. In her “recycled blog post” yesterday, Dame Catherine Wybourne suggested that “many who have argued in favour of the bill do not seem to have read through its clauses or thought about its implications”, and this seems to be borne out by the findings of today’s ComRes poll. Reading the Bill from a strictly legal point of view, I came to the same “not fit for purpose” conclusions as I found in a subsequent reading of the Living and Dying Well document “Another ‘Assisted Dying’ Bill: Does it pass the public safety test?”

  2. I remain open minded still on this subject – Professor Stephen Hawkins has put forward a good case for the bill, and equally,Lord Deben (John Gummer) has put a good case against it – sensibly keeping religion out of it despite his recent conversion to catholicism.

    • Catholicism, Neil, at its best at least, does not believe that religion is needed at all to see clearly in those matters. I wish the CofE would, as it used to, use its reason as well, and stop trying to turn ethics into a deductive exercise from Scripture. We do not need Revelation to do the right thing.

      • Not so fast ! Both the CofE and catholics believe in a god and a son of god, so there is very little difference between them – they are still both religious cults who’s followers bow down to a sky fairy.

    • You can still worship the sky fairy and believe that she has not revealed morality. Can I make it any clearer?

  3. Christians in disagreement over something so important! !! Who would have thought???? is it any wonder that people no longer look to the church for guidance, when they cant even agree amongst themselves!!!! Isnt it also a bit embarrassing that the void left by the church has been filled by the daily mail!!!!!

    • And talking of the Daily Mail, in yesterday’s (July 18) edition, there was a full page article by Alice-Azania Jarvis entitled “Invasion of the giant jellyfish” and I shall quote a paragraph :
      “They (the jellyfish) have been drifting around the oceans, largely untouched by evolution, for at least 500 million years”

      Good to know even the Daily Mail accept the bible is mostly bunkum.

  4. Neil wrote:
    “Good to know even the Daily Mail accept the bible is mostly bunkum.”

    But then we know that corporately or individually people continue to absorb rubbish and false beliefs with their mother’s milk!
    Taking the New Testament alone, both Christian and non Christian classical scholars know well that the evidence for the NT writings in the form of ancient documents and papyri is ever so much greater than the evidence for many writings of classical authors, the authenticity of which no one dreams of questioning. But a little research and reading of history is all that is needed.

    Of course whether you believe the Gospel accounts of Christ is another matter, but he is a figure in history whether you believe it or not, and as well attested as any other, but
    to describe such writings as “bunkum” can only stem from self-inflicted ignorance.

    • Talking donkey’s, burning bushes, people living inside whales, worldwide floods, virgin births, parting sea’s, walking on water, raising from the dead etc etc. Think Neil may have a point!!!!

      • P.s. the point about classical authors, is that they describe history and don’t make supernatural claims!!! Big difference!!!!

    • To not see the bible as bunkum can only stem from self-inflicted ignorance.

  5. Having ground my way through the uncorrected Lords Hansard yesterday and this morning I wasn’t at all surprised that views were divided. Obviously I could predict what Lord Carey would say; I was surprised, however, at the speech by Baroness Richardson of Calow: a Methodist minister and past-President of Conference. As a Christian Bs Richardson believes in the sanctity of life as a gift of God to be used responsibly with respect and generosity for the good of others. However, “When the Bible says there is, ‘a time to be born, and a time to die’ we are not passive players in that. We manipulate conception, we permit abortion, we interfere with the processes of birth and we postpone death by surgical intervention and drug therapy, yet we refuse to allow the means which are there to reduce the length of the dying process, even when days of suffering and distress are not alleviated by devoted care.” She supported the Bill in principle but saw the need for robust safeguards to be put in place – which was what should be done in Committee.

    Bs Richardson is not kind of person who goes in for grandstanding; and I’d have thought that this was exactly the kind of moral issue on which Christians and, indeed, those of any faith, could legitimately and in good conscience hold opposing views. After all, if we’re talking about non-natural death, people of faith hold totally opposing views on capital punishment and killing in time of war – so why not on assisting suicide?

    (I should say that for my part I’m utterly conflicted on this. Emotionally, I would hope that if when my time comes I’m in agony, someone would help me to die as peacefully as possible. Intellectually, however, I can see so many problems in any legislation that might be put in place that I wouldn’t like to see it on the statute book. So I’d rather it was left to the DPP’s guidelines – though I suspect they need further revision.)

    • I’m with you on this, Mr Cramer, and I too thought that Bs Richardson made much sense; but the most common misconception of the contra side is that the law in its current state prevents the horrors they believe a change in law would cause. I really don’t think it does: people travel, commit suicide (and botch it) in horrible manners because of this, doctors are (at least open to) being sued for levels of medication that ere either deemed insufficient to relieve pain or so high as to cause death. Plus, I cannot get my mind around the fact that people who would, rightly, oppose torture in the most strident terms when its causes are humans, seem to allow it unthinkingly when its causes are not, perhaps because it shatters their theodicy, though I confess myself a Christian too.

    • and I’d go so far as to call anyone unconflicted (is this a word?) on the matter a moral ass.

  6. To not allow a fellow human being, a pain free, dignified death is the most abhorrent cruelty imaginable!!!!

  7. There seem to be perfectly good and Christian reasons to question the present mess that has been referred to parliament by the Supreme Court. It’s saying that the cases coming its way are beyond what can be decided without a policy steer from parliament. The underlying theological issues discussed, for example, in Professor Badham’s book don’t go away simply because they are ignored. Ecclesiastical Top Brass seem to find this impossible to talk about in anything but one dimensional utilitarian/consequentialist terms. They talk as if there is only one answer, rubbishing anyone who sees things differently. Therefore the real debate, inevitably, goes on largely without them. This is a sad state of affairs, but the remedy lies in their own hands.

  8. Why should people be forced to suffer pain through a terminal illness because some others think killing yourself is a sin? Right to die, I believe, should be allowed. It doesn’t affect you if I want to die if I have an incredibly painful disease that I cannot recover from so why should you or anyone else be able to keep me in pain?

    Why should anyone have to suffer a painful incurable condition just so the invisible sky fairy does not get angry? Let us not forget that this sky fairy also must have inflicted this disease upon them.

  9. The coverage of the bill I’ve seen and heard has been balanced and has fairly explained views on both sides. Referring to the campaign for the bill as “a slick and well-oiled machine” borders on meanness: it’s not a massively-funded juggernaut and the implication of this description is that it’s somehow dishonest. I heard Margo Macdonald speak not long before she died and she argued with conspicuous fairness.By the way, lobby is singular and the possessive “its” has no apostrophe unlike “it’s” meaning “it is”.

    I note that a large collection of faith leaders have spoken together against the bill, though the extent to which they’ve consulted the whole body of their believers would be an interesting question. My own faith group (Quakers) was not part of this. As a Christian and a Liberal, I reject the idea that the state should be legislating to impose moral absolutes on the whole population of whatever faith or none. It may indeed be morally wrong to act to terminate your own life, even in extreme suffering, but that is between you and God. Likewise it may be wrong to assist someone else in this (I don’t think so, but I could be mistaken), but again, it’s a personal decision. The proper role of the state in this is to prevent decisions being taken that harm someone else not party to the decision. Thus it’s right that there should be stringent provisions to make sure dying people are not railroaded into the decision and their will is not misrepresented. If the bill is too weak in this respect, there is the route of amendments.


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