Archbishops clash over assisted dying ahead of UK law debate

About 200 Britons have travelled to Switzerland to end their lives in the last 15 years

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has stressed his opposition to assisted dying as one of his predecessors announced he has changed his mind and will now support the right of terminally ill patients to seek help to end their lives. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has stressed his opposition to assisted dying as one of his predecessors announced he has changed his mind and will now support the right of terminally ill patients to seek help to end their lives. Photograph: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Sat, Jul 12, 2014, 13:40

The Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby has stressed his opposition to assisted dying as one of his predecessors announced he has changed his mind and will now support the right of terminally ill patients to seek help to end their lives.

As the House of Lords prepares to consider relaxing the law against helping patients to kill themselves, Welby said it would leave a “sword of Damocles” hanging over the heads of elderly and sick people.

However, George Carey, one of his predecessors as spiritual leader of the Anglican Church, said he would now oppose the official Church of England line by supporting the right to be helped to die.

The clash came ahead of yesterday’s debate on the bill presented by former Labour Lord Chancellor, Charles Falconer, which would allow doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill and mentally alert people who want to kill themselves.

Assisted suicide remains a criminal offence in Britain punishable by up to 14 years in prison.

However, guidelines issued by the Director of Public Prosecutions in 2010 indicated that anyone acting with compassion on the will of a dying person was unlikely to face charges.

Rather than risk their loved-ones being prosecuted, about 200 Britons have travelled to Switzerland to end their lives over the past 15 years at clinics run by the Dignitas association.

The bill before the Lords would allow terminally ill patients with a “settled intention” to end their lives to have doctors prescribe them lethal doses of drugs. Two doctors would have to sign off the fatal dose.

Writing in the Times newspaper on Saturday, Welby said the opinions of the bill’s supporters were mistaken and dangerous.

If it became law, he said, many elderly people would be put under pressure to end their lives by friends and relatives with financial gain as their motive.

“Abuse, coercion and intimidation can be slow instruments in the hands of the unscrupulous, creating pressure on vulnerable people who are encouraged to ‘do the decent thing,’” he wrote.

“What sort of society would we be creating if we were to allow this sword of Damocles to hang over the head of every vulnerable, terminally ill person in the country?”

In its opposition of the bill, the Church argues protection of life should take priority over personal autonomy. It says an obligation on society, doctors and nurses, to take life or to assist in the taking of life would create a new and unwelcome role.

Locked-in syndrome

But Carey warned that by opposing reform, the Church risks “promoting anguish and pain, the very opposite of a Christian message of hope”.

In an article for the Daily Mail newspaper, he said he had changed his mind after witnessing the suffering of campaigners like Tony Nicklinson, who suffered for years from locked-in syndrome.

The father of two campaigned in vain to be allowed the right to die until he passed away two years ago.

“His distress made me question my motives in previous debates,” Carey wrote. “Had I been putting doctrine before compassion, dogma before human dignity?

“The fact is that I have changed my mind. The old philosophical certainties have collapsed in the face of the reality of needless suffering.”

The stance of Carey, archbishop of Canterbury between 1991 and 2002, was supported by Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, chair of Inter Faith Leaders for Dignity in Dying, an alliance of clergy of different faiths in favour of assisted dying.

“The former archbishop’s words are like a breath of fresh air sweeping through rooms cloaked in theological dust that should have been dispersed long ago,” he said in a statement.

“He shows that it is possible to be both religious and in favour of assisted dying.”

If the bill passes the Lords and reaches the Commons, MPs of most parties are expected to be given a free vote.

Reuters