BHA: Assisted dying shows the disproportionate power religion has over our democratic laws

Assisted dying shows the disproportionate power religion has over our democratic laws

by Pavan Dhaliwal, Head of Public Affairs, British Humanist Association

Last week Tony Nicklinson lost his case at the High Court to allow doctors to end his life without risk of prosecution.  This decision is deeply disappointing.  Tony was paralysed by a catastrophic stroke in 2005 which left him with locked-in syndrome.  He communicates by blinking, and has described his life since the stroke as a ‘living nightmare’.  He says that he is ‘devastated’ by the court’s decision.  Tony plans to appeal against the decision.  We have fully supported Tony from the beginning and will continue to do so in the appeal.

The judge in this case ruled that it is the role of Parliament, not judges, to rule on this issue.  There is a need for a new law on assisted dying, but the likelihood of new legislation on the matter being introduced any time soon is very small.  Despite opinion polls which show that a large majority of the public is in favour of a change in the law on assisted dying, it is difficult to get legislation on the issue through Parliament.  This is because of the activities of pro-life Christian lobby groups, such as Care not Killing, whose lobbying influence is way out of proportion to their actual size and membership.  The Church of England bishops in the House of Lords will also be a barrier to any new legislation.  Therefore it could be many years before we get a new law on assisted dying, and this means many more years of suffering for Tony and others in a similar situation. 

One of the main arguments against a new law on assisted dying is that it would lead to vulnerable people being forced to end their lives against their will, by relatives or others who might have an ulterior motive.  However, stringent safeguards will prevent this.  In fact, the current situation, where assisted dying is illegal, is potentially worse.  This is because when there is no legal framework in place, and assisted dying can only take place under the radar, away from the knowledge of the authorities, it is more likely, not less, that vulnerable people will be forced to end their lives without their consent.  Arie Nieuwenhuijzen Kruseman, head of the Royal Dutch Medical Association, recently claimed that some UK doctors have told him that they practice euthanasia, despite the fact that is currently illegal in the UK.  To ensure that vulnerable patients do not have their lives ended against their will, the practice must be brought out into the open and properly regulated.

Another problem with the law as it stands is that it often forces terminally ill patients to kill themselves earlier than they would have done otherwise.  For incapacitated or terminally ill people who are determined to end their lives, the only legal option is to travel to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland.  But if they wait until their condition becomes unbearable, they will be too ill to make the journey there, meaning that many people end up ending their lives prematurely.  Therefore, as long as there are strict safeguards in place, a new law on assisted dying would actually lead to increased protection for vulnerable patients, as well as extend the lives of many seriously ill people who would otherwise choose to end their lives too early.

The real motivation behind much of the opposition to a new law is purely a religious one.  Religious opponents of assisted dying believe that only God has the right to give or take away life from us.  However, Humanists argue that adults who are of sound mind ought to be able to make autonomous decisions about their lives, as long as these decisions do not result in harm to others.  When a patient is suffering from an incurable condition, is permanently incapacitated, has made a clear and informed decision that they want to end their life, but is unable to do so, the law should surely allow a doctor to intervene.