BHA: Main opposition to reform on assisted dying will come from well-funded but unrepresentative religious lobby

Main opposition to reform will come from well-funded but unrepresentative religious lobby

by Naomi Phillips, Head of Public Affairs, British Humanist Association

Following a thorough and independent inquiry, the Commission on Assisted Dying’s principal finding is that the law on assisted dying is ‘inadequate and incoherent’ and that ‘there is a strong case for providing the choice of assisted dying for terminally ill people’. The Commission has made a number of recommendations in its report necessary to facilitate a change in the law to legalise assisted dying while at the same time protecting vulnerable people.

Commenting on the report, the British Humanist Association’s (BHA) Chief Executive, Andrew Copson, stated, ‘The law as it stands is not compassionate. It gives no option to those who wish to end their lives without suffering and distress but are unable to do so themselves. The majority of the public support a reform in the law, and we do not believe there are any credible arguments to keep the law as it is. Rational and compassionate people will surely find nothing to disapprove of in the recommendations of the Commission today.’

Certainly, a change in the law is long overdue and urgent to prevent any more unnecessary suffering for those few people who have made a clear and resolute wish to end their lives but are unable to do so themselves – and the Commission’s considered, detailed, sensitive, and academic report makes a strong case for legal reform.

Case for wider reform

However, when we were called to give oral evidence to the inquiry (watch here) and in our written evidence we made the case for a wider reform of the law. From an ethical perspective, we maintain that there is no strong moral case to limit assistance to terminally ill people alone and ultimately we wish to see reform of the law that would be responsive to the needs of other people who are permanently and incurably suffering. We also think that there are good arguments from compassion and from autonomy to legalise assisted dying and voluntary euthanasia, where the latter would allow someone other than the patient to administer medication needed to end her life, if she were unable to do so herself and had clearly stated that was her wish.

In light of that position, Mr Copson continued, ‘If anything, we would have liked to have seen the Commission go further and recommend a greater change in the law to allow both assisted dying and voluntary euthanasia. There is no rational moral distinction between allowing someone to die and actively assisting them to die in these circumstances: the intention and the outcome (the death of the patient) are the same in both cases. The only difference is that the more active means is probably the more compassionate one.

‘Recommending only a limited reform in the law to allow assisted dying but not voluntary euthanasia, and only to encompass terminally ill people rather than also including people who are unable to end their own lives but who are incurably suffering, permanently incapacitated and have made a clear, informed and resolute decision that they wish to do so, is ethically inconsistent.’

What can be done – and who opposes reform?

However, this is not to downplay the enormous and positive impact that a reform in the law would make for terminally ill people, and for their families who, at the moment, are being faced with the immensely difficult choices of whether, knowing that it is unlawful, to assist a loved one who is begging for help to put an end to their suffering or not to act and hence prolong their suffering.

But as the report makes clear, this is an issue that parliament needs to legislate on for change to happen. And despite the fact that survey after survey shows that a majority of people – whether religious or non-religious – support a reform in the law to legalise assisted dying (see figures ‘On Assisted Dying’), many MPs and Peers are resistant to speak out or to support change. When there are so many good, ethical reasons to support a reform in the law, why is there such reluctance amongst our elected representatives to act?

From our experience of working for reform in the area of assisted dying for many years, we can attest to the level of misinformation and emotionally charged campaigning conducted by those who oppose reform. It is clear that well-funded, organised, but disproportionate and unrepresentative lobbying and protestations from religious and other oppositional organisations, and the organised and influential opposition to reform by the 26 Church of England Lord Bishops in parliament, have a distorting, negative impact on the debate, severely retarding progress to take the law in a more ethical direction.

Of course it is not only religious people who form the minority opposition to reform on assisted dying (as above, most religious people support legal reform) – but it is the unrepresentative, often socially conservative religious lobby which is most vociferous in opposing a change in the law, just as it is in campaigning against issues such as the right to abortion and stem cell research (both issues that also command wide public support). The majority of members of the Care Not Killing alliance – the group which has been most vocal in opposing the Commission on Assisted Dying – are religious organisations, most are Christian. And most other prominent opponents come from a similar, conservative, religious perspective.

We will continue to campaign hard against the small but vocal lobby who oppose changing the law to allow, with strict safeguards, those who are suffering to die with dignity at a time of their own choosing. It would be a great shame if their largely unshared beliefs continued to have undue influence over our elected representatives, to come above the needs and rights of terminally ill patients, and to stand in the way of real reform. We urgently need a law on assisted dying that is sensible, ethical, humane, forward-thinking and that upholds people’s fundamental human right to die with dignity and in a manner of their choosing.