Church of England calls assisted suicide plan morally unacceptable

England - The Rt Rev James Newcome, Bishop of Carlisle, said the best safeguard for vulnerable people would be to keep the existing law in place.

He also claimed the Commission on Assisted Dying, a group of peers and academics chaired by the former Labour minister Lord Falconer, was a “self-appointed” group that excluded anyone who objected to legalising assisted suicide.

It had “singularly failed” to prove that vulnerable people would be safer under the new proposals than under the existing law, which is rarely used but means anyone who helps another person kill themselves can be jailed for up to 14 years.

His comments came after the Commission, which was funded by the right-to-die campaigner Sir Terry Pratchett, called on the Government to let doctors help people die if they have less than 12 months to live.

The report said assisted suicide should be allowed for those terminally ill people who are mentally competent and have voluntarily chosen to take their lives. But to protect vulnerable people from abuse, it said those with depression or dementia should not be given help, and that the process should be overseen by doctors.

In response Bishop Newcome, who speaks for the Church of England on healthcare topics, said in a statement: “The present law strikes an excellent balance between safeguarding hundreds of thousands of vulnerable people and treating with fairness and compassion those few people who, acting out of selfless motives, have assisted a loved one to die.

“Put simply, the most effective safeguard against abuse is to leave the law as it is. What Lord Falconer has done is to argue that it is morally acceptable to put many vulnerable people at increased risk so that the aspirations of a small number of individuals, to control the time, place and means of their deaths, might be met. Such a calculus of risk is unnecessary and wholly unacceptable.”

He also said: “The ‘Commission on Assisted Dying’ is a self-appointed group that excluded from its membership anyone with a known objection to assisted suicide. In contrast, the majority of commissioners, appointed personally by Lord Falconer, were already in favour of changing the law to legitimise assisted suicide. Lord Falconer has, himself, been a leading proponent for legitimising assisted suicide, for some years.

“The commission undertook a quest to find effective safeguards that could be put in place to avoid abuse of any new law legitimising assisted suicide. Unsurprisingly, given the commission's composition, it has claimed to have found such safeguards.”

The Church was “unconvinced” that the Commission had been successful, since it had “singularly failed to demonstrate that vulnerable people are not placed at greater risk under its proposals than is currently the case under present legislation”.

Bishop Newcome claimed that in countries where assisted suicide or euthanasia was allowed, there are “breaches of safeguards as well as notable failures in monitoring and reporting”.

The panel was today accused of being “biased at the outset” having been established and funded, in part, by the organisation Dignity In Dying.

Baroness Finlay, former president of the Royal College of Medicine, said nine members had already publicly backed a change in the law.

She also said it was “just about impossible” to predict how long a patient will live, even at the end of their life.

Lord Falconer ackowledged that he had previously campaigned for an amendment to the current law in Parliament but he said the “vast majority” of the panel had approached the issue on an “independent, no previous form basis”.

He told Radio 4’s Today programme: “The critical thing is to look at extensive evidence here and abroad, in those cases where there has been some sort of assisted suicide legislation, and try to reach rational and objective conclusions.

“The evidence that we heard identified that there is probably a small cohort of people who, no matter how good the end of life care that may be available for them is, will not be able to face the idea of a lack of independence and lack of function."

Lord Falconer admitted that there was a risk of abuse in any system, but insisted the new plans would provide effective protection to vulnerable people who may feel under pressure to end their lives. Under the Commission’s plans, even Sir Terry would not be eligible to receive lethal medication as he has early-onset dementia, not a terminal disease.

He added: “I don't think you can ever have a system that is completely watertight.

“We therefore looked at the current system where there is no check on whether or not you are really terminally ill.

“You can go to Dignitas without having a second check.”

Another cleric has added to the criticism of the Commission’s composition.

The Rt Rev Nick Baines, Bishop of Bradford, pointed out that many organisations had declined to give evidence at its hearings.

He wrote on his blog: “So, before giving their report too much credence, just imagine the credibility an ‘independent’ group of evangelical Christians would have been given if they had established a ‘commission on abortion’ and concluded they were against it?”

Sir Terry Pratchett, the author who funded the Commission, said poor quality care for the elderly was driving people to assisted suicide.

He said that going into a care home “these days has for some people the same connotations as the word workhouse used to”.