How amazing to have two former Anglican archbishops, George Carey of Canterbury and Desmond Tutu of South Africa, supporting Lord Falconer’s bill to legalise assisted suicide! It has always been, and remains, a firm doctrine of the Church of England that it is wrong to take a life. Yet here are two Church leaders agreeing with a majority of Britons — more than 80 per cent, according to the polls — that it should be legal for a doctor to supply a suffering, terminally ill patient with a lethal dose of poison if he wants it.
Lord Carey said that in changing his mind on this issue he had been deeply influenced by the case of Tony Nicklinson, who suffered from locked-in syndrome after a stroke, which meant that he could only move his eyes and head. He wasn’t able to take his own life (though he did eventually die anyway), but tried and failed in various legal applications to let a doctor do it without facing a murder charge. ‘Had I been putting doctrine before compassion, dogma before human dignity?’ Lord Carey wondered about his previous position. Archbishop Tutu said much the same: ‘I have been fortunate to spend my life working for dignity of the living. Now I wish to apply my mind to the issue of dignity for the dying. I revere the sanctity of life — but not at any cost.’
What exactly is a dignified death? It certainly isn’t the kind of death arranged by Dignitas, the famous Swiss clinic that helps to kill Britons and other people from countries in which assisted suicide is forbidden. I remember watching a Sky documentary a few years ago in which Craig Ewert, an American man suffering from motor neurone disease, spent his last moments in what looked like a cheap motel room in Zurich while Dignitas staff, eager to show that his death was entirely voluntary and not urged upon him, made him drink his poison unaided and switch off his life-support system with his teeth, his hands being too weak to do so, while constantly reminding him in their Swiss-German accents that he was killing himself — ‘You can drink this? You are going to die, ja?’
But I wonder if dying is ever exactly dignified. I am lucky never to have seen someone die in pain, but even a peaceful death is hard to bear as the mouth falls open, the breathing gets shallower and eventually the body falls still. Dignity, it seems to me, is something one can only aspire to in life. Does compassion require nevertheless that in very special circumstances, as set out in Lord Falconer’s bill, people suffering from painful terminal diseases should be helped to die? That most people now think it does must be largely thanks to the publicity given in recent years to a number of heart-rending individual cases, as well as to a widespread feeling that people seeking death should not be forced to submit themselves to the indignities of Dignitas. The problem is, though, that, however you look at it, assisted suicide remains too close to murder for the law to be able to distinguish clearly enough between them.
As Gordon Brown said in a euthanasia debate in the House of Commons a few years ago, ‘I believe that it’s necessary to ensure that there is never a case in the country where a sick or elderly person feels under pressure to agree to an assisted death or somehow feels it’s the expected thing to do.’ And it was this same fear that Justin Welby, the present Archbishop of Canterbury, expressed forcefully in an article in the Times last week urging rejection of Lord Falconer’s bill. It would, he wrote, ‘be very naive to think that many of the elderly people who are abused and neglected each year, as well as many severely disabled individuals, would not be put under pressure to end their lives if assisted suicide were permitted by law’.
In advocating it, Archbishop Tutu cited the case of Nelson Mandela, who had been kept alive through numerous painful treatments and been forced shortly before his death to take part in a humiliating publicity stunt in which some African National Congress politicians had turned up at his house with a television crew and filmed him with them, although it was obvious that he ‘was not fully there’. But this was a total irrelevance, having nothing to do with the case for or against assisted suicide. It did, however, raise another issue, which is whether the plight of the terminally ill is not worsened by the growing success of doctors in keeping them going for longer than they should. The demand for assisted suicide might be less if people were allowed to die naturally when they felt that their time was up.
Alexander Chancellor is the new editor of The Oldie.