Assisted Deaths for Terminally Ill.

House of Lords debate. 10th October 2005


My Lords 

Bills considered in your Lordships’ House are usually important but the Bill before us must surely rank as among the most crucial as far as the lives of vulnerable and helpless people are concerned. In contributing to this debate I wish to dissociate myself from the view that those of us who disagree with the thrust of Lord Joffe’s intentions have a higher view of human dignity than those who present the case for assisted suicides and voluntary euthanasia. I want to salute Lord Joffe’s tenacity, and recognise his concern for those individuals who wish to terminate their lives at a time of their own choosing. Neither side can claim to have a complete monopoly of the moral high ground.  We may disagree strongly about the bill before us, but we are united in wanting the best for such individuals and for all those who approach the end of their lives in pain, distress and fear. 

It is sometimes alleged that people who are opposed to PAS/Euthanasia are religious zealots, implying that people without religious convictions (the majority) are not opposed.  This is a false division. Allow me to focus on just one issue  – namely ‘autonomy’ - to see why you don’t need religious convictions to acknowledge that legalising these acts would be a mistake. 

It is clear from the Select Committee’s excellent report that those who argue for euthanasia use as their main argument the concept of personal autonomy[1]. But, my Lords, ‘autonomy’ is a weasly-word.  ‘Autonomy’ means ‘making your own rules’, and in a civilised society that isn’t possible. Who is completely free of duties to others and where do we draw the line where life-decisions are only ours to take? Behaviour in a civilised society is necessarily modified to take account of the interests of others, so ‘principled autonomy’[2] rather than personal autonomy should replace the individualistic version of personal autonomy. In applying the principle of autonomy at the end of life, the choice of the right to die inevitably affects others -- especially medical staff who act on your choice and those who are left behind. 

Now, it may surprise some to know that Christians support principled autonomy.   The Christian emphasis is on duties rather than rights – on personal responsibility rather than personal autonomy.  One witness to the select committee aptly spoke of “respecting the autonomy of the individual as self-government rather than self-determination”[3]. But it is not only Christians who also believe that they cannot expect to have total control over their lives.  What they can – and must – have control over is over themselves.  If we succeed in doing that – and how many of us do! – life will be better both for us and for those around us.  The inevitability of death has to be accepted; and the manner in which I accept it – not whether I can control its time, place and method – determines whether I die well. 

Christians and those of many other faiths believe that this life is not the sum total of reality and that they are answerable to God for the way they live, the way they die and the way they help others who are dying – not by killing them but by easing their pain and other suffering.  They believe that human life is a gift from God and that we have no right to take it. 

But, you may say, most people in Britain today are  not practising Christians – why should Christian values be imposed on others?  

Well, there may be many, like my own parents when I was growing up, who may not go to church or have a clearly-defined Christian faith but the culture from which they draw their values is essentially a Judaeo-Christian one, with its emphasis on compassion, forgiveness and the sanctity of human life. Such values transcend narrow denominational boundaries.  They know too, My Lords, that the choice to die cannot be regarded as a purely personal and private choice. It does indeed affect other people. To ask a doctor to help draw your life to an end, is to draw that person into your choice in a way that cannot be regarded as morally neutral. It will be to affect the doctor-patient relationship in a fundamental way.

Furthermore, even if you don’t share the Christian view that euthanasia is morally wrong, judging by the letters I have received, many believe with me that it is misguided.  In this respect Christian values are at one with good sense and our sense of abiding, human values.  [It’s easy to see that, if Parliament were to pass a law allowing assisted suicide or euthanasia for the terminally ill, there would soon be pressure to extend it to  encompass other groups– Lord Joffe himself told the committee that that was what he would like to see[4].  It’s easy to see how terminally ill people who are in a state of despair and depression might want to shorten their lives to save money for their children or to take a care burden off their shoulders[5].  It’s easy to see how doctors would soon start to feel no compunction about taking life and how the medical profession would suffer as a result[6].]

My Lords, there are sound secular as well as religious reasons not to go down this road.  People who argue against changing the law do not do so because they are religious fanatics.  Some of them– and they are a substantial number - have religious convictions which tell them that medicalised killing is wrong.  But many more can see important civic reasons why society as a whole, and its more vulnerable members especially, would be threatened if the law were to be changed. 

© George Carey

[1] See HL86, Volume 1, Paragraphs 22, 41-52 and 62-68

[2] HL86, Volume 1, Paragraph 43

[3] HL86, Volume 1, Paragraph 52

[4] HL86, Volume 1, Paragraphs 92-93

[5] HL86, Volume 1, Paragraphs 97-99 and 123-126

[6] HL86, Volume 1, Paragraph 102-103