On Friday 18th July, Lord Falconer’s assisted dying bill was debated in the House of Lords. This bill has created both controversy and widespread support amongst religious leaders, parliamentary representatives and public figures. The passing of the bill would act as a major stepping-stone towards elective suicide through legal injection administered by a doctor, in an attempt to give people dignity in their final days.

The Bill requires certain safeguards in order for a patient to be deemed eligible to obtain the right to die. The safeguards include the agreement of two doctors that the individual is of sound mind, that he/she has a clear intention to die and is likely to have less than six months to live. Critics have dismissed the safeguards as inadequate and have requested further drafting.

The proposal has created significant debate in the House of Lords along with mixed reactions from representatives, ranging from full-fledged support to vehement rejection. Despite this, according to a recent YouGov poll, 73 percent of adults in England and Wales support the proposals in this bill. Public figure, Chris Woodhead, former chief inspector of schools and sufferer of motor neurone disease wholeheartedly supports the Bill and understands first-hand the frustration and unnecessary suffering of terminally ill people. He believes that it is the quality of one’s life that is more important than the quantity and resultantly, he himself has admitted that in the future he may consider suicide as his disease progresses.

The most interesting recent revelations have come from the opposing views of certain religious leaders. Desmond Tutu and Rabbi Jonathan Romaine have shown their support alongside, surprisingly, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey. However, the current archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, along with 23 other religious leaders around the nation, have begun an initiative to undermine the legal change through an unprecedented joint attack against the Bill. Figureheads from Muslim, Sikh, Buddhist, Hindu, Jain, Zoroastrian religions and many major Christian denominations signed a joint letter as a plea to parliament on the eve of the Bill’s first hearing.

The criticisms of the Bill from these leaders range from religious-stemming beliefs regarding the sanctity of life to concerns that the Bill will endanger the lives of people in vulnerable situations, assuming that terminally ill patients would be unlikely to be able to make such a grave decision. Moreover, some believe that the passing of the Bill will hold irreparable implications for wider society, insinuating that the lives of the terminally ill are of lesser value than the lives of healthy individuals. For such critics, the solution lies in the development and improvement of palliative care, to reduce the frustration and suffering an individual has to go through in such a desperate situation.

Curiously, in modern times the sanctity of life argument is undermined by exponential advancements in western medicine. Nowadays, doctors have the ability to artificially treat and manage illness that used to be comparable to an almost immediate death sentence. We can prolong a terminally ill person’s life, irrespective of quality and regardless of the individual’s desires or happiness. It is difficult to regard a life as holy and sacred when a terminally ill patient is sentenced to essentially endure a slow agonising death over the course of several months. This promotion of needless suffering and anguish is precisely contrary to the foundations of most world faiths. Times have changed, and legislation needs to follow suit.

The premise of the Bill is to allow those suffering needlessly to die with dignity and in peace. We allow such a right to animals and now is the time to recognise that the terminally ill have the agency and capacity to decide when and how they want to die too. Although parliament is in a position to pass this legislation, the Bill as it is currently structured lacks coherence and logic, in particular, due to the 6-month stopgap feature. For example, there may be an individual in their middle age who has 30 years of unimaginable suffering ahead of them. Resultantly, this individual would not reap the advantages of this Bill, despite the argument that their suffering may be worse than other individuals’ who would fit the safeguards outlined by the legislation.

Regardless of the outcome, the events that will unfold will heavily influence future legislation in regards to an individual’s right to die. Although the legislation as it is currently drafted is far from perfect, it could be a step in the right direction either for pro-euthanasia supporters, or for religious opponents. Despite the opinions of certain parties outlined, one must have respect for the capacity of people to make their own decisions despite being in the final stages of their lives and at the same time, be sensitive to the suffering they are able to bring an end to.

 

Sources:

Yougov source: http://yougov.co.uk/news/2012/07/05/support-doctor-assisted-suicide/

Chris Woodhead information source: http://www.thesundaytimes.co.uk/sto/newsreview/features/article1433324.ece

Statement from religious leaders on assisted dying bill: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/10970955/Assisted-dying-bill-faith-leaders-statement.html