Bishop of Carlisle speaks against Assisted Dying Bill – new legislation would destroy balance of current law

“By going down this track we would be sending a clear message to society, and especially its most vulnerable members, about individual lives having a different value according to their circumstances.”

On 18th July 2014, the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, spoke during the Second Reading of the Assisted Dying Bill. The Bishop spoke against the Bill, raising concerns that the proposed Bill would destroy the balance currently provided by legislation, and highlighting the risks associated with the Bill in relation to the welfare of vulnerable individuals. 

14.06.09 Bishop of CarlisleThe Lord Bishop of Carlisle: My Lords, a word that is frequently used in your Lordships’ House is “balance”. It has already been used several times in this debate—in particular, by my noble and learned friend Lady Butler-Sloss, the noble Lord, Lord Condon, the noble Baroness, Lady Kennedy, and the noble Lords, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard and Lord Wills, and probably many others whom I may have missed. We constantly look for balance in our legislation and in the way that the legislation is applied.

My contention in this brief contribution to our inspiring debate is that the Bill would destroy the balance, however precarious it may be, that we have achieved in the current law on assisted suicide and in the guidelines that have been produced for its enforcement. In the first place, it destroys a delicate balance on compassion. As we have heard frequently today, compassion is the primary argument behind the noble and learned Lord’s Bill. Of course, on these Benches we have the greatest sympathy with that and respect for those who advance it.

However, as several noble Lords have observed, this compassion is highly selective. It offers a seemingly compassionate approach to those who are terminally ill and wish to end their lives, and it sounds compassionate towards those who help them to do so. However, not only does it ignore those whose situations are often even more desperate and who are not terminally ill, as recognised by the Supreme Court, but it also, however inadvertently, disregards the many vulnerable elderly and disabled people in our society who, as we have been reminded many times today, will find themselves under great pressure should the Bill ever become law.

We have all received a huge amount of correspondence on this subject. In my case, much of it has been from precisely such vulnerable people who have expressed their deep-seated fears and worries about the legalisation of assisted suicide, whatever the proposed safeguards. What is more, their very moving and powerful letters have been overwhelmingly reinforced for me by communications from members of the medical profession who have all had years of experience in serving the elderly and providing palliative care. They—and they include my son’s ethics tutor at medical school—are deeply concerned about any possibility of a change in the law and they urge us to oppose any such change.

As for the theology of compassion, mentioned by the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Carey, accompanying someone to his or her death is what our clergy and others do all the time. It is the very definition of compassion—“suffering with”, from the Latin—and that of course is a big part of what the cross is all about in the Christian faith. However, neither in scripture nor in the church’s tradition has that ever included helping people to commit suicide. Therefore, as various speakers have suggested—particularly the noble Baroness, Lady Hayman—the supporters of the Bill have no monopoly on compassion.

Secondly—the noble Lord, Lord Wills, made this point very powerfully—the Bill destroys the fine balance on choice, or patient autonomy, which our present legislation and the guidelines attempt to provide. The point was made also by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury. How often do we hear people claim that they have a right to choose what they do so long as their choice does not affect anyone else? Let us be clear about the kind of choice that we are considering today. A choice to assist someone else to commit suicide does affect other people. It cannot be made in a moral or legal vacuum.

Our true dignity as human beings lies not least in our interdependence and our willingness not only to care for those in need but also, when we are ourselves in need, to be served by others. I believe that that is the love referred to earlier by my noble friend Lord Judd. To quote from one letter I received from a severely disabled person who requires 24-hour assistance:

“There is nothing shameful or degrading about needing personal care”.

My noble friend Lady Campbell of Surbiton made that point earlier in a most powerful way.

The current law makes it clear where we stand on this crucial question of life and death but also takes a sensible, humane approach to breaches of the law, as we heard so clearly from the noble Lords, Lord Macdonald and Lord Condon. The Bill destroys that balance in an irreversible way, and others have indicated where such a change will undoubtedly lead over time. By going down this track we would be sending a clear message to society, and especially its most vulnerable members, about individual lives having a different value according to their circumstances. That is something which, on these Benches at least, we could never accept.


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