Bishop Martin Warner recaps on the recent Assisted Dying Bill debate in the House of Lords
I felt constrained to begin my contribution to the debate with a theological view, as we had been challenged to do. It was simply this: in the Christian view, God does not inflict evil on people. Indeed, the man God, Jesus Christ himself, sharing our life, experienced the evil and suffering of the cross in order that we, in the darkest moments of death, might find hope and the recovery of life in heaven. I believe that we were treading on sacred ground in listening to personal stories in the Lords, and did so with reverence.
Most of all, I wanted to speak about the wider context of vulnerability and from the experience of the parishes where I have served; for example, the sex workers in the back streets of Plymouth, the largely black and Asian communities in Leicester, and the bedsits and overcrowded flats of Hastings, home to people with severe mental health issues and/or drug dependency. At the point of facing terminal illness, such people would reveal overwhelmingly that they have no family, and few friends or responsible partners to assist them through reaching the point of final death. Indeed, in many cases, they have had no experience of being given autonomy or power over their lives; at the end of their lives, they are woefully ill prepared for taking responsibility for their death.
The sanctity of life is central to Christian faith. It is also a view held with honour and conviction by people of other faiths. The Church’s sense of responsibility for all people stems from this conviction—responsibility especially for the vulnerable when they face death too often alone, but, at the moment, with the fundamental bulwark of protection in the law.
This was a point made powerfully by the former Bishop of Oxford, Lord Harries, when he said:
The fundamental issue at heart is what the effect will be—particularly over many generations—of changing the law. Fundamental to our society now is respect for the individual worth and dignity of every human individual. However, let us look ahead to 2025, when there will be 1 million people suffering from dementia, and to 2050, when 2 million people will be suffering from dementia, and a much lower birth rate will mean fewer people to support them financially or look after them. What kinds of questions will be in people’s minds then? If you ask yourself which of the two evils is worse, to suffer from a debilitating illness or to lose mental capacity and the capacity to reason, many of us would say that the second is worse. That logic has been applied in Canada and we must think about that because it is the way the world is going. In Canada in 2021, for example, a waiver of final consent permits people to make a written arrangement with a physician or nurse for assisted dying at a future time should they lose their decision-making capacity; that is, if they have dementia. It is exactly the same in Holland, and goes much further in Belgium where fatigue has been added to the list of ailments, similarly if you are young and claim extreme deep depression. The question is whether we really want to go down that route. At the moment, we have a bulwark in place, and I think that that bulwark should stay; I do not want us to go down that road.
Lord McColl expanded upon this:
Canada’s euthanasia legislation has resulted in 1,373 people having euthanasia, with the reason for their untimely death given that they were lonely. Is that the hallmark of a civilised society? Some dismiss that as just a small crack in the dam, but small cracks in a dam often result in the whole dam giving way… We hear a lot about the right to commit suicide and autonomy, but let us be clear: the Bill is not about that. It is about the right to tell someone else—a doctor or a dispensing pharmacist—to end a patient’s life. That is not about autonomy. It turns us as doctors into takers of life, and that is not what we were called to do. “Care” and “kill” are not interchangeable words. The present law stands as a huge dam holding back thousands of unintended consequences. We must ensure it is kept in good repair.
Lord Herbert also observed:
This short Bill does not do a small thing. It introduces in our law for the first time the idea that a patient’s life may be taken, albeit with their consent. Life, in some circumstances, is no longer to be protected by an inviolate principle, but rather by administrative safeguards and term limits.
Many contributors to the debate raised significant doubts about the level of trust in the capacity of the judiciary and the medical profession to meet the extraordinary demands of disadvantaged communities when terminal illness and incapacity face them. The call for urgent and sustained investment in palliative care would be a positive and worthy outcome to this important debate on a Bill, whose humane intentions I respect profoundly but which, I believe, would lead to unintended consequences and which we should not let pass.