The Falconer Bill, the Church and the possibility of Christian support for Assisted Dying

Posted: 16 July 2014 in Uncategorized

Since someone has asked a question about this (in a comment on my last post — from as long ago as March!) I thought it might be worthwhile commenting on what is taking place in England and Wales, where the Falconer Bill on assisted dying is now before the House of Lords, and upon which a decision will be made this Friday (I believe). In the run up to its consideration a former Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed his support for the bill and for assisted dying, and has argued (correctly in my view) that Christianity should be able to accommodate assisted dying, since, quite apart from the church’s responsibility of care for the living, it has an equal responsibility to enable the dying to die with some comfort and dignity. This seems so obvious to me that I wonder what it is that keeps Christian leaders in the opposing camp. Indeed, so opposed are they that they are prepared to trundle out any possible argument they can lay their hands on in order to oppose passage of such bills.

The main objection to the bills has to do with the bills’ danger to the so-called vulnerable. This is a red herring, as a brief study of those jurisdictions where assisted dying has been legalised would show. It is surprising that the argument continues to be made nonetheless. The reason that these arguments are being made, I believe, is that the religious know that religious arguments in and of themselves are irrelevant to the consideration of public policy, so they are consigned to using the weakest arguments around, arguments which have been disproved again and again by the practice of assisted dying where assisted dying is legal. One of the things that the Church of England has never faced head on is that the Swiss have had a very permissive law regarding assisted suicide in their Penal Code since 1941, and no one has yet shown that this law has been misused in the way that Church of England clerics continue to argue that even more stringent laws would be abused if the Falconer Bill were passed.

The Falconer Bill is modeled directly on the assisted suicide bill in the state of Oregon in the United States. It would apply only to those who are terminally ill and have (in the opinion of expert medical opinion) at most six months left to live. Of course, such prognostications are highly fallible, and doctors are today usually reluctant to make such claims. Nevertheless, the use of the bill in Oregon has not shown the slightest degree of misuse, whatever its detractors may say, and it is very doubtful whether it will be misused any more in England and Wales than in Oregon. So the constant harping on such possible misuses is simply a misleading way of expressing the religious objection to assisted dying bills tout court.

On the Church of England home page there is an article by the Rev’d Dr. Malcolm Brown, the Director of Mission and Public Affairs of the Church of England. I sent him a strongly worded letter, but unfortunately a computer crash swallowed it up. Nevertheless, Brown’s undergrduate essay itself is still there to show how really shallow that church’s argument against assisted dying really is. The assisted dying bill is all about choice, he says,

But talk about choice on that day in the future when I am wholly dependent on the people around me, when my life is almost over and I have far more chance of pleasing others by getting out of their way quietly than of making much difference to my own situation, and my choice won’t be about me, it will be about them. And those last days of life, surely, are precisely the moment when choices ought to be about the one approaching the end – and no one else.

Which just shows how cynical the church can be when it comes to making an argument. In my experience, and, I assume, in Brown’s experience too, if he’s ever done any pastoral work with the dying, it is simply false to suggest, as he does, that any choices he might make in the conditions in questions, has

far more chance of pleasing others by getting out of their way quietly than of making much difference to my own situation, and my choice won’t be about me, it will be about them.

This is simply false (though there is no reason not to take the feelings of others into account). There may be cases in which families might like to hurry their “loved” ones into a grave, but they are very few, and there is no reason why such pressure should no be detected by sensitive people. Even those whose family life has not been ideal, at the time of death, approach death with enormous seriousness, and most would do anything to keep their loved one alive. Besides, in a regime where the option of assisted dying is on offer, this is something that will be known by everyone long before hand, and they will have made up their own minds as to how they wish to die. Brown seems to be suggesting that the only time that assisted dying will be on the menu will be at the very end when the dying person may be in no position to make a choice. If this were true, then those who have responsibility for spelling out the options long before then, will not have been doing their job.

Brown’s argument is very like the silly argument made by the “loose Canon” that “assisted dying is the final triumph of market capitalism.” Like Brown, he thinks the availability of assisted dying will put pressure on the dying to get out of the way and save their loved ones emotional trauma. He even suggests that he has nothing in principle against assisted dying. In his own words:

I have no absolute religious objection to assisted dying. And as surveys seem to show, nor do most religious people. But I do have a serious anxiety that we hugely underestimate the emotional complexity of giving patients this choice. For what it says to many people who are dying (and because of that, often exhausted and confused) is that it is now within their power to relieve the emotional distress of those who surround them.

Giles Fraser has simply not been paying attention. In Oregon there is no evidence that assisted dying is being used to relieve emotional distress of famllies. Indeed, quite the contrary, if the stats are anything to go by. Very few people die with assistance. Indeed, many who receive a prescription for a lethal medication never use it. It is the reassurance that if their suffering becomes very great that they will have the opportunity to take their dying into their own hands that is the really important thing. What is surprising about Giles Fraser is that he says he has nothing in principle against assisted dying. If so, then, if he has been paying attention, he would know that his argument is empty. He is just parroting the usual religious line, but, just to show that he is not lacking in compassion, remarks that he has nothing against it in principle. Such a smoke screen should not mislead us as to his real argument, which, as usual with the religious, have to do with religious principles.

Luckily, some churchmen have been paying attention and both Desmund Tutu and George Carey, the first a former Archbishop of Capetown, the other the Archbishop of Canterbury who preceeded Rowan Williams, have come out in favour of assisted dying. However, the case that most affected George Carey is one which would not have been helped by the Falconer Bill now before the House of Lords, a bill which, in its understanding of assisted dying and the reasons for it is completely wide of the mark. For what is at issue here is not terminal illness, but intolerable conditions of life, of which Tony Nicklinson was an example. Nicklinson might have lived for many many years, but his quality of life was such that he felt it was time to go. The Falconer Bill would have been of no help to him, or to Sue Rodriguez in Canada, or to my wife, who might well have lived in total paralysis for another ten or fifteen years. The Falconer Bill is a big mistake. I would like to see it fail in order to make room for a bill which would really address the needs of the suffering. Because one can suffer intolerably long before terminal illness within six months has set in. George Carey himself knows this, given the example that he uses. It may be that his intervention will change the vote in the House of Lords, but it ought not to, because Falconer’s bill is completely inadequate to the issue to which it offers itself as a solution. The question here is one of autonomy, and autonomy should be available to anyone who is suffering unduly, and for whom only death can release them from that suffering. I am encouraged, of course, by Carey’s and Tutu’s responses, but I hope they will think again, before supporting bills which are inadequate to their purpose.

An additional point. One of the well worn arguments against assisted dying is the so-called “slippery slope argument.” The Falconer Bill, unfortunately, is one which will simply confirm this in the minds of its opponents. The bill is itself inadequate. It does not take into consideration cases of suffering which should be included within its purview, and because it doesn’t people will soon realise it and demand that the bill’s scope be widened. Immediately the slippery slope crowd will jump in with an “I told you so!”, because widening the scope of the bill will be taken to be an example of the slippery slope in action instead of an perfectly reasonable extension of the bill to those whose great suffering can only be brought to an end by death. It won’t be a slippery slope, but it will be crowed out far and wide as the beginning of the slide down the slope, though in fact it would only be a recognition that the original bill was inadequate to the purposes it was meant to serve. I say, defeat the bill, and replace it with something more robust. The vote will take place this Friday.

  1. GBJames says:

    Thanks for this post, Eric.

  2. couchloc says:

    It’s good to hear from you Eric! I hope things are well with you.

  3. makagutu says:

    Thanks Eric for this post.
    You mention a very important point that is often overlooked by those opposing assisted dying and that is the fact that when it is legalized, it is not at the point of death that one becomes aware of the provision but that as we live our lives we are aware and can make decisions on how we would like to die should the event arise that we have to choose how to.

  4. No, Michael, I don’t get it either. Indeed, I made several comments after the column to which you refer. I’m afraid that Giles’ thinking about religion is a bit of an uncashed cheque, and it is not very clear what religion is for him or how it functions. But to speak of religion as a romance, and then say that this should affect public policy is really going way out on a very small limb.

  5. Chris Eilers says:

    Yes, if the Falconer Bill is replaced later with a more adequate bill, this is likely to bring out the ‘slippery slope’ argument in force, but I’m not sure that that’s a good reason to hope that it isn’t passed.

    At a guess, when the vote for women (and blacks) was first proposed, the same slippery slope was envisaged. What next, women in parliament? Societal thinking often moves slowly, step by step, and just because the first step is a small one doesn’t make it worthless.

    Would it be worthwhile amassing and presenting detailed information on the outcomes of the laws in Oregon and Switzerland since their inception? Not only the official stats, but public comments and indicators of shifts in public perception in both places since their inception. Perhaps this has already been done but, if it has, I’m not aware of it.

  6. Steve Pollard says:

    Dear Dr MacDonald,
    I have learned a great deal in the past from reading your thoughtful observations on a range of issues, and it is good to see you returning to your ‘specialist subject’ once again.
    In the run-up to the Falconer debate, more than one commentator in the UK referred to polls allegedly conducted in Oregon, Washington and elsewhere, purporting to show that many (maybe even a majority) of those contemplating asking for assisted dying did so ‘because they did not want to be a burden to others’. Lord Harries, former Bishop of Oxford, who is opposed to the Falconer Bill, made this assertion on the BBC Radio 4 ‘Today’ programme a couple of days before the debate.
    I have not been find the evidence for any such polls, and would be interested to know whether you or anyone else knows if the assertion is true. If not, then somebody – I hope not Harries – has simply made it up in order to bolster the opposition to the Bill.

  7. Steve,

    Two things. First, I am not aware of any such polls. However, second, not wanting to be a burden on others is surely a perfectly acceptable altruistic reason for seeking to die, as Baroness Warnock has pointed out again and again. The judgement that this is not acceptable (and, of course, it is not acceptable if people are putting undue pressure on someone to die for such a reason) is not obviously true. Why is it thought necessary to treat those who are dying or in great suffering as incompetent? If I make a personal decision that my suffering is very great, and that my suffering is in fact an unacceptable burden for others to bear, why should my own judgement regarding my wish to free my loved ones from such a burden unacceptable? For after all, in such circumstances, there is suffering enough to justify such a decision.

    In general, however, to answer the first question, polling has been done to see if, in fact, the so-called vulnerable are at greater risk where assisted dying is legal, the answer is a definite no. Indeed, it has been shown that those who choose to die tend to be largely those who are (i) more intelligent, (ii) better educated, and (iii) accustomed to control over their own lives.

    One of the things that those who oppose the legalisation of assisted suicide in England and Wales never mention is the fact that assisted suicide has been legal in Switzerland since 1941! And the only check on those who assist is that the person assisting should not stand to profit from such assistance (viz., that it not be done from selfish motives). That’s it. And no one that I know has shown that this legalisation of assisted suicide has created the kinds of problems that the former Bishop of Oxford, or the Archbishop of Canterbury, and others in high position in the church(es) become so hysterical about. The truth seems to me that the objections are purely religious, and that the secular stand-ins for such religious arguments are bits of fluff to pacify religious opponents of assisted dying, knowing fully that religious reasons have little weight in secular jurisdictions. The reasons given are in any event not borne out in practice, and are mainly scare tactics to mislead people as to the real effect of assisted dying, which is to allow people to take control of their dying, when the only one who is supposed (by religious interests) to be in control is God. “God giveth, and God taketh away; blessed be the name of the Lord!” That’s the heart of religious objections, and everything else is mere flimflam.

  8. Steve Pollard says:


    Thank you for your full and thoughtful response.

    For the record, I have now had a look at the transcript of the Lords’ debate (which I should have done before my first post), and find that Harries commented as follows:

    ‘The 2013 report on the situation in Washington state revealed that 61% of those supplied with lethal drugs gave this as one of their main reasons, while 50% did so in Oregon. Certainly, if I knew that I had an illness of body or mind that would make me totally dependent on others, I would seriously ask myself whether it would not be better for them if I died. We must ask ourselves whether we really want to put people in a position where they will inevitably be tempted to seek an early way out, rather than become an increasing burden on those they love’. (Lords Hansard, 18 July, col. 806)

    The 2013 report quoted is here: It does indeed state that 61% of those asked said that they feared becoming a burden on others. But this was only one among many reasons: 91% said that they feared losing autonomy; 89% that they were less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable; 79% that they feared loss of dignity; and 52% that they feared losing control of bodily functions. All this is in line with what you and others have previously written on the issue. For Harries to single out the ‘burden’ argument, and to couch it in the terms used above (‘inevitably be tempted to seek an early way out’) strikes me as disingenuous.

  9. […] a far more sensible take on assisted suicide, let me direct you to this post by Eric MacDonald. You should go read the whole thing, but the part that is most relevant to our […]

  10. Caroline says:

    hi all, I live in the UK and have been reading the comments on this site with interest. Sadly the position her is that the charity Dignity in Dying has totally committed itself and its funding to pursuing the legal route and are now ‘up the creek without a paddle’!
    The word ‘assisted’ is the real bugbear here. In fact the very small number of people who are totally helpless – such as Tony Nicklinson in the UK – are being conflated with the growing numbers of those who are capable of choosing to end their existence AND of carrying it through using pure nitrogen and with absolutely no need to involve doctors or for them to compromise their Hippocratic Oath.
    People are quietly just getting on with it and when it is widely known Dignitas will go out of business. The real issue is that the term ‘commit’ IS NO LONGER RELEVANT as it is not a crime to end one’s life. In the UK the law historically follows developments and we tend not to produce new legislation where the existing statute augmented by case law suffices.
    Those who are interested would be well advised to:
    1. Read ‘How We Die’ by Sherwin B Nuland MD – we know alarmingly little about the actual process of dying!
    2. Watch the documentary on the possible methods of administering the death penalty in the USA by Michael Portillo, a former UK MP available from his website. Wherein he concludes that nitrogen is the only humane (even pleasant) way of dying but would never be acceptable to the US public as why should the worst of criminals die in a nice way when most of us will have a ghastly struggle at the end?
    Most of the discussion is bogged down and confused or irrelevant. Yes only a minority of humans are psychologically capable of ending their own lives (possibly a growing minority however) BUT very many would be truly empowered by the knowledge that they had the choice.
    In 20 years or less (depending on whether a viral pandemic has clobbered mankind yet) people will look back at us with pity for our ignorance. PS lab rats have been despatched this way after experiments for years – what a supreme irony…

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