Dying with dignity
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Date: 31 October, 2005

Grave stone

'It may be that this is a defining point of theology for the modern church.'


Should terminally ill people who want to die be allowed to do so? Euthanasia is currently banned in the UK - and should remain so, say many religious leaders. 'Medievalism!' cry their critics. Susan Roberts looks at the voice of religion in the debate around assisted dying.

Lord Joffe, a 73-year-old human rights lawyer, would like to make it easier for terminally ill people in this country to die as and when they wish.

'The best person to make a decision on the value of their life is the person who is suffering terribly,' he says.

His Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill bill, currently making its way through the House of Lords, would make it legal for doctors to prescribe drugs for a terminally ill person to take to end his or her life.

It's an emotional subject and the Lords' debate earlier this month on a Select Committee's findings on Lord Joffe's bill for the most part threw up the usual complex - and powerful - arguments on both sides.

Some key players remain officially neutral - the government and the British Medical Association, which dropped its long-held opposition in July in a vote at its annual conference.

But impossible to ignore this month - because of its force and cohesion - was the religious lobby which expressed widespread opposition across all beliefs including Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Sikh and Hindu.

In an open letter to the House of Lords and the House of Commons, leading figures from six faith groups argued that all human life is sacred. "Assisted suicide and euthanasia will radically change the social air we all breathe by severely undermining respect for life," they said.

Among those who signed were the Catholic Archbishop of Cardiff Peter Smith; the Rt Revd Tom Butler Bishop of Southwark; the Chief Rabbi Dr Jonathan Sacks; Bimal Krishna das, General Secretary of the National Council of Hindu Temples (UK) and Sheikh Dr M A Zaki Badawi, Principal of the Muslim College, and Chair of the Muslim Law Sharia Council.

In the same week, Dr Sacks talked on Radio 4's Today programme about caring for his terminally ill father.

'On the face of it, what could be more compassionate than to give someone wracked with pain the choice to bid life a gracious farewell?' he said.

'How easy it would have been for him to spare us those final tormenting days. I can see him doing it. Yet he would have been so wrong - because, more than anything else, we wanted to be there with him in his suffering, giving back some of the care he'd given us when we were young.'

The Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, wrote in the Mail on Sunday about caring for his mother in the last days of her life. Life is a 'gift from God that we cannot treat as a possession of our own to keep or throw away', he said.

The lobby conveyed its key messages with conviction. But those on the other side of the divide were enraged rather than persuaded.

The Lords' debate - and in particular the interventions by Church of England bishops - was 'a remarkable battle between the forces of the enlightenment and a barely disguised medievalism', wrote the Guardian's Polly Toynbee. Why was the voice of religion so loud in this country, the world's most secular nation? she asked, pledging to keep a supply of her late mother's morphine pills 'to take in good time should a horrible death ever beckon'.

Equally as sceptical about the religious lobby was the Voluntary Euthanasia Society (VES).

'The church has drawn a line in the sand for itself,' spokesman Mark Slattery told surefish. 'It may be that this is a defining point of theology for the modern church.'

The VES, set up in 1935 by a group of doctors, lawyers and clergy, lobbies Government and MPs to change the law 'to improve patient choice at the end of life and stop needless suffering'. Both public and professional opinion is behind Lord Joffe's efforts to bring about a change in the euthanasia law, it says.

'The Church is speaking for a very narrow minority whose views should not be imposed on the rest of society.'

The VES bases this position on a NOP World Survey in 2004, when 81 per cent of Catholics and Protestants questioned said that they wanted a change in the law to allow terminally ill people to ask for and to receive medical help to die. Forty-nine per cent of Catholics said they would be prepared to break the law to help a loved one to die.

Mark Slattery says the views of religious leaders - across the spectrum of faiths - seem not to reflect the views of their congregations. The Jewish faith is equally divided with a liberal Jewish wing distinctly in favour of assisted death.

He points out that theologians and clerics were among the founders of the VES.

'Without a Christian foundation, we would never have existed... Even now; we have more than 30 members of clergy who are members of the society. I have many, many Christian members who write to me and say their views are not represented by the Christian press.'

Another outspoken critic of the churches' position is Rev Paul Badham, Professor of Theology at Lampeter. Writing recently in the Church Times, he argued that early Christians did not see suicide as intrinsically wrong.

'The historic Christian view has always been that death at the end of a long life should be seen as natural, not as something to be feared.' He quotes the Apocryphal book Ecclesiasticus 30:17: 'Death is better than a miserable life and eternal rest than chronic sickness.'

If it is moral to pray for such a death, it should be equally moral to ask for a doctor's help to obtain it, he says, also quoting the NOP poll to indicate grass roots support for a change in the law - support apparently ignored by church leaders.

Those who helped to coordinate the religious lobby question the validity of this oft-quoted poll. The vote at the Church of England Synod last July was 293 to one against the legalisation of euthanasia, they point out.

But the issues show no sign of going away: Lord Joffe's bill will return to the Lords later in the year.

In the meantime, says Help the Aged - which is not in favour of a change in the current euthanasia law, elderly people find it hard enough anyway to get the care they need from the health care system.

Help the Aged is channelling its energies into researching older people's experiences at the end of their lives to gain a better understanding of the difficulties they face. Its new report 'Dying in Older Age' investigates just this.

'We welcome debate . which shows that society is becoming more sophisticated in facing up to these questions," says spokesman Jonathan Ellis. "But older people are generally quite anxious about these issues.'


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