Bishop of Chester cautions against changes to law on assisted suicide

“The risks inherent in legalising assisted suicide still outweigh the benefits that might accrue” – Bishop of Chester

On 12th December 2013, the Bishop of Chester spoke in Lord Dubs’ debate on patient choice at the end of life, calling on the Government to resist changing the law to legalise assisted suicide. The Bishop of Sheffield also made his maiden speech in the debate, which can be read here.

14.03 Bishop of ChesterThe Lord Bishop of Chester: My Lords, I join other Members of the House in welcoming the reinforcements to the Bishops’ Benches. I will make three brief points in my contribution, the first of which does not have a direct connection with assisted suicide. We typically have long waiting lists today for transplantation surgery in this country, due to an absence of an adequate supply of donated organs. I hope that we will do as much as we can, and more, to encourage people to carry organ donation consent cards and to engender a culture in society in which transplantation and donation of organs are encouraged, especially for those whose death comes in an untimely and unchosen way. This is a matter of choice at the point of death, as are the things that we are discussing in the main part of this debate.

Some religious communities exhibit a particular reluctance to support organ donation, which often works to the disadvantage of the members of that community who are waiting for transplantation. For some time, efforts have been made to overcome this reluctance. Earlier this week, a new interfaith organ donation action plan was launched, backed by the NHS and with the active involvement of a number of churches including the Church of England. I mention this simply to underline that there are various issues connected with choice at the point of death beyond the main issue of today’s debate.

Turning to issues of choice in relation to assisted suicide, I acknowledge the strength of the momentum for legalising assisted suicide, which has been well illustrated in the contributions to the debate so far. I must acknowledge the state of public opinion on the matter, which I believe is likely to get stronger. For a society that has now embraced abortion by choice, the move to assisted suicide by choice might seem, in moral terms, rather a modest step. I am surprised that this connection is not made more often, although two noble Lords in today’s debate have acknowledged it and, in last week’s rat-a-tat-tat debate, the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, made quite a lot of it, saying that the parallel between abortion and assisted suicide was connected by issues, as she put it, of common humanity. Whether one accepts that parallel or not, and whatever one makes of the parallel, I believe that the wider social context is crucial to our debates on this subject. Choice always has a context, and the context of our society has changed and is changing. I need to acknowledge that.

I remain personally opposed to the change in the law that is in the Bill of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer. But the question with which I wrestle is: on what basis can I prevent others who take a different view from making their choices on the basis of a change in the law? It is a somewhat open question but I think I am still persuaded that in order to sustain justice for the vulnerable in our competitive and individualistic society—the context in which we are discussing this matter—there would have to be very powerful bulwarks in the law to prevent the exploitation of the weak and vulnerable.

Even with the safeguards in the draft Bill, changes in the law tend to create their own momentum, as has been well illustrated with what has happened with abortion. For me, that is where the problem will lie if a change in the law is based too much on the notions of choice and autonomy to which a number of noble Lords have referred very centrally. If you accept assisted suicide fundamentally on the basis of autonomous choice, how can you simply leave it to a very restricted group who are believed to be terminally ill? Logically, one day or another, sooner or later, it would have to be extended.

That leads me to my current conclusion: that the risks inherent in legalising assisted suicide still outweigh the benefits that might accrue.


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