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Religious leaders unite against assisted suicide bill

posted on 12 May 2006


The Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, has signed a joint letter with the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi, published in the Times on Friday, May 12th 2006,  to urge opposition to a controversial Bill being debated today in the House of Lords that would allow terminally ill patients to request euthanasia from their doctors.


The Cardinal also teamed up with Dr Rowan Williams for a rare joint interview on the BBC Today programme. The interview can be heard as a download from the BBC Today Programme Website for seven days until Thursday 18th May.


Letter to the Times


The three religious leaders have signed joint letters before, but seldom on legislation before Parliament.


'We are opposed to this Bill and to any measure that seeks to legalise assisted suicide or euthanasia,' the three leaders said in their letter to The Times. 'We believe that all human life is sacred and God-given with a value that is inherent, not conditional.'


The letter warns that the elderly and the lonely would find themselves pressured to ask for an early death, and says that decisions about assisted suicide have 'acute implications' for families and the wider community. The religious leaders believe that a decision to commit suicide in order to be released from suffering cannot ever be made autonomously – the cornerstone of the argument being made by the architect of the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill, Lord Joffe.


The religious leaders say the Government should fund better palliative care, arguing that 'palliative care workers are integral to securing the dignity of those nearing death.'


Doctors and disability-rights campaigners are also opposed to the Bill.


Comments on the Today programme


'The presence of Dr Rowan Williams and Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor can perhaps be taken as a mark of the gravity with which both they and their Churches view the Assisted Dying Bill, which goes before the Lords today,' Ed Stourton said on this morning’s Today programme.


'People change their minds about this,' said Dr Williams. 'Very often we’re talking not about objectively measurable unbearable pain … but states of mind.'


'I’ve been a priest for nearly 50 years now and stood at the bedside of the terminally ill,' the Cardinal told Today. 'My heart goes out to all those who are terminally ill and in great pain.' His experience told him that 'we should treat the pain, not kill the patient,' he said.


He said a lot of people in Britain were unaware of the palliative care on offer.


'The Archbishop and myself are speaking not just for people of religious faith but for the common humanity and the principles of a civilised society when we argue against this Bill,' the Cardinal said. 'Doctors particularly know – whether they are Christian or religious or not – that at the heart of their vocation is the treatment of their patients.'


'The cost of voting this through is disproportionately high to the benefit to certain individuals,' Dr Williams added.


The Cardinal said if the Bill became law many would feel that they are such a burden that they would have to die.


Full text of the letter published in The Times


'Today the House of Lords will debate the Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill. We are opposed to this Bill and to any measure that seeks to legalise assisted suicide or euthanasia. We believe that all human life is sacred and God-given with a value that is inherent, not conditional. We urge legislators to withhold support for this Bill so as to ensure that British law continues to safeguard the principle that the intention to kill, or assist in the killing, of an innocent human being is wrong.


Compassion for the terminally ill is incumbent on all of us, but in that respect we believe that the Bill is misguided. Such a Bill cannot guarantee that a right to die would not, for society's most vulnerable, become a duty to die. Were such a law enacted, the elderly, lonely, sick or distressed would find themselves under pressure, real or imagined, to ask for an early death. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that economic pressures might not come to play a significant part in determining whether to treat or recommend assisted death.


Decisions about assisted suicide have acute implications for others – relatives, friends, colleagues, medical professionals and the wider community. As such, any change in the law would irrevocably change the delicate relationship of trust between patient and doctor and between citizen and society.


We particularly acknowledge the opposition to a change in the law from disability groups and from the majority in the medical profession, especially those committed to providing palliative care. In helping the terminally ill to face their fears, and by relieving their pain and suffering, palliative care workers are integral to securing the dignity of those nearing death. We believe, therefore, that properly funded and universally accessible palliative care services are essential for meeting the needs - material, emotional and spiritual - of those with terminal illnesses, and we urge the government to recognise the need for greater funding for palliative care.


The Most Reverend and Rt Hon Dr Rowan Williams ,Archbishop of Canterbury


His Eminence Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O’Connor, Archbishop of Westminster


Sir Jonathan Sacks, The Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth

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posted on 12 May 2006

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