- New group of interfaith leaders and laypeople following more than a dozen denominations call for change in law on assisted dying
- Poll finds 53% people of faith felt religious leaders were wrong to campaign against last assisted dying bill, while just 22% felt it was right
- Christian man who accompanied wife to Dignitas welcomes new Alliance
Liberal Judaism, a progressive strand of Judaism, and the Modern Church, an Anglican society promoting liberal Christian theology, are the latest faith organisations to join the new Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying, a collection of multi-faith groups, leaders and laypeople calling for a change in the law on assisted dying. Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has also joined the Alliance and the Chief Officer of the Unitarians has recognised the strong support among many of their members. The Alliance is also welcomed by a Christian man who accompanied his terminally ill wife to Dignitas in 2019 at her request.
The Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying is formed of religious organisations, leaders and people who follow more than a dozen different denominations and who support a change in the law to enable terminally ill people the ability to determine how, when and where they die alongside high quality end of life care. This comes as a private member’s bill on assisted dying was introduced to the House of Lords last month by Baroness Meacher, Chair of Dignity in Dying, paving the way for the first debate on prospective legislation in Parliament for more than five years.
In a YouGov poll of 5,039 adults published yesterday, 53% of religious people felt it was wrong for religious leaders to actively campaign against an assisted dying bill that was debated in the House of Commons in 2015, with just 22% saying they felt it was right for them to do so.
Faith leaders including the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Archbishop of Westminster wrote to MPs in September 2015 to urge them to oppose the Second Reading of the assisted dying bill in the House of Commons. The bill was based on one introduced by Lord Falconer in 2014, which was supported by Peers both at Second Reading and at Committee Stage, where two opposition amendments were defeated by large margins. Unfortunately, the parliamentary session ended before it could progress further. Baroness Meacher’s bill, also based on Lord Falconer’s bill, was drawn seventh in the House of Lords private members’ ballot last month and a Second Reading is expected in the autumn.
A 2019 Populus poll found that approximately 80% of religious people (and 84% of the general public) support the change proposed in Baroness Meacher’s bill – namely that terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months would be able to request an assisted death, subject to approval from two independent doctors and a High Court judge.
Similar legislation has been in place in Oregon, USA for over 23 years, and has since been adopted by nine other American states plus the District of Columbia, three Australian states and New Zealand.
The Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying brings together followers of the Church of England, Church of Scotland, Church of Wales, Catholicism, Baptism, Evangelism, Methodism, Unitarianism, United Reformed Church, Quakerism, Liberal Judaism, Reform Judaism and Sunni Islam.
Rabbi Charley Baginsky, Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism, said:
“Liberal Judaism has a proud history of being at the forefront of progressive societal change, speaking up for much-needed liberal reforms with compassion at their heart. Much like votes for women or equal marriage – rights which now seem unchallengeable – assisted dying is a right we are proud to champion for people nearing the end of their life.”
Rabbi Danny Rich, Liberal Judaism rabbi with responsibility for hospital and prison chaplaincy and former Chief Executive of Liberal Judaism, said:
“I have long been an advocate of the right of terminally ill individuals, subject to appropriate safeguards, to decide the manner and timing of their own deaths. Twenty-seven years ago my own great uncle, suffering with inoperable cancer, ended his own life with help from a relative. That dying people are still forced to contemplate dying by suicide as an alternative to a traumatic or prolonged death by their disease is shameful. I add my voice to the growing number calling for true choice and control at the end of life.”
Alan Race, Chair of the Modern Church, said:
“Christians place high value on human dignity and compassion and believe we should relieve suffering where possible. We welcome medical intervention in order to relieve pain, especially when suffering becomes unbearable. Relationship with God is a freely chosen commitment and this means that we do not leave it to God to determine the time of death. Trusting in God’s unlimited compassion therefore includes the desire to relieve unbearable suffering at the end of life. In practical terms, granting permission for assisted dying often has the effect of releasing renewed spirituality for living a more fulfilled life prior to death itself.”
Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, said:
“For too long we have turned a blind eye to the suffering inflicted on terminally ill people by the ban on assisted dying. Compassion, a central tenet of the Christian faith, should not be a crime, and yet under the current law it is treated as such. I believe a change to the law is urgently needed to enable our dying citizens the ability to go as they wish. To my mind, this is the moral, and the Christian, thing to do.”
Liz Slade, Chief Officer of the Unitarians, said:
“The Unitarian movement voted in 2013 on the issue of assisted dying; in our recognition of the worth and the dignity of all people and their freedom to believe as their consciences dictate, members voted to support the principle that individuals should have the right to seek support for assisted dying in certain circumstances, and that legislation should respect this choice and allow them compassionate assistance without fear of prosecution of anyone involved. Many Unitarians are passionately in favour of a change in the law, while recognising the need to allow a diversity of voices to be considered on this important moral issue.”
Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, Chair of the Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying, said:
“This new Alliance is a truly multi-faith rallying call for a compassionate, safeguarded law on assisted dying for the UK.
“In the 60 years since the blanket ban has been in place, medical advances have done wonders in prolonging life, but this often means prolonging the dying process too, causing suffering that may be beyond the reach of palliative care. Religious teaching evolves to deal with the challenges of modern life, so too should the options we offer people when they reach the end of it. That we continue to deny our dying citizens a choice that is now available in states and nations around the world is morally indefensible. It’s time to have a national debate on assisted dying that respects all views while recognising the strong support among religious people.”
Len Taphouse, 81, a former lecturer in engineering and father of three from Hornchurch, is a member of the Church of England and welcomes the new Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying. Len accompanied his wife of 55 years, Stella, to die at Dignitas in Switzerland at her request in August 2019. Stella was terminally ill with Parkinson’s disease and breast cancer, and in previous years had been diagnosed with cancer of the womb and skin.
“I was brought up as a regular church-goer, and in 2014 Stella and I renewed our vows 50 years later in the very same church we got married in. Neither of us found our faith a barrier to supporting Stella’s decision, quite the opposite. But this option should have been available here at home. Stella should not have had to spend £11,000 and my daughters and I should not have had to break the law and risk prosecution to accompany her in her final moments. It’s time the law was changed so that people like Stella can die as they wish in this country, surrounded by those they love, in their own bed.”
Tom Davies, Director of Campaigns and Communications at Dignity in Dying, said:
“Medical organisations are increasingly recognising the range of views among their members, with doctors accepting that whatever their personal opinion they cannot deny their dying patients the choices they want. Religious organisations and faith leaders are now doing the same, recognising the support for change among their congregations and putting the choice and autonomy of those at the end of life before doctrine.
“With an assisted dying bill in the House of Lords, the Health Secretary commissioning data on suicides by terminally ill people, Scotland due to consult on potential legislation and Jersey conducting a citizen’s jury on the subject, it is essential that parliamentarians across the British Isles understand that the vast majority of the public, with faith and without, want change.”
For more information, interview requests or photos please contact Ellie Ball, Media & Campaigns Manager at Dignity in Dying at email@example.com or 07725 433 025.
Notes to Editor
All figures, unless otherwise stated, are from YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 5,039 adults. 2,126 people answered “Yes” when asked if they were religious. Fieldwork was undertaken between 11th – 16th May 2021. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all GB adults (aged 18+). Published in The Sunday Times, Sunday 6 June 2021.
Organisations, leaders or people following any faith are welcome to join the Religious Alliance for Dignity in Dying here: https://www.dignityindying.org.uk/religiousalliance/
The Assisted Dying Bill
Baroness Meacher’s assisted dying bill was introduced to the House of Lords on Wednesday 26 May 2021 after being drawn seventh in the Private Members’ Ballot. A Second Reading is expected in Autumn 2021.
This bill is based on a bill introduced by Lord Falconer in 2014, the full text of which can be found here: https://bills.parliament.uk/bills/2592
Rob Marris MP introduced a similar bill in 2015 which was defeated in the Commons.
The functioning of the current law on assisted dying was the subject of a Backbench Business Committee Debate in July 2019 and a Westminster Hall debate in January 2020, at which a majority of MPs speaking called for a review of present legislation.
In April 2021, Health Secretary announced to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Choice at the End of Life that he had requested data from the Office for National Statistics on suicides by terminally ill people and assisted deaths in Switzerland of British nationals. This followed comments Mr Hancock made in the House of Commons in November and January this year highlighting the Government’s role in obtaining a fuller understanding of the functioning of current assisted dying laws and stressing the importance of suicide prevention and patient safety measures.
Dignity in Dying
Dignity in Dying campaigns for greater choice, control and access to services at the end of life. It campaigns within the law to change the law, to allow assisted dying as an option for terminally ill, mentally competent adults with six months or less to live – something supported by 84% of the public (Populus, 2019).
The UK’s laws on assisted dying
Assisted dying is prohibited in England and Wales under the Suicide Act (1961), and in Northern Ireland under the Criminal Justice Act (1966) which states that anyone who “encourages or assists a suicide” is liable to up to 14 years in prison. There is no specific crime of assisting a suicide in Scotland, but it is possible that helping a person to die could lead to prosecution for culpable homicide.
The Government of Jersey, a British crown dependency, is currently conducting a citizen’s assembly on assisted dying which will report recommendations back to the States Assembly for debate later this year.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, on average one Briton every week travelled to Switzerland for a legal assisted death – a process which costs £10,000 on average and often causes people to die prematurely because of the need to retain the physical strength to make the journey. Anyone who assists in the arrangement of an assisted death overseas or accompanies someone to Switzerland for this purpose could be prosecuted for ‘assisting a suicide’ in England and Wales. Polling has found that over half (53%) of Brits would consider travelling abroad for an assisted death if terminally ill and two-thirds (66%) would consider breaking the law to help a loved one do so, yet only a quarter (25%) would be able to afford it.
A further 300 terminally ill people end their own life in England every year on average, and 17 people every day suffer as they die even with access to the best end of life care.
In the US, assisted dying as an option for terminally ill, mentally competent adults in their final months of life is legal in 11 jurisdictions: Oregon (1997), Washington, Vermont, Montana, the District of Columbia, California, Colorado, Hawaii, New Jersey, Maine and New Mexico (April 2021).
In Australia, assisted dying is a legal choice for terminally ill citizens in Victoria (June 2019), Western Australia (December 2019) and Tasmania (March 2021). A bill in South Australia was approved by the Upper House in May 2021 and will be debated by the Lower House later this year. A bill is due to be introduced in Queensland in late May 2021.
New Zealand is set to legalise assisted dying as a choice for terminally ill, mentally competent citizens by November 2021, following a public referendum on the End of Life Choice Act in October 2020.
In Ireland, an assisted dying bill is currently undergoing pre-legislative scrutiny after a majority of TDs voted to progress the Dying with Dignity Bill 2020 in October.
Spain passed a law allowing assisted dying in March 2021 to be implemented later this year.
Austria’s Supreme Court ruled in December 2020 that its blanket ban on assisted dying is unconstitutional and the practice will be decriminalised in limited circumstances by 2022.
Germany began considering potential assisted dying legalisation in January 2021 after its Constitutional Court struck down the ban in 2020.
Canada introduced assisted dying legislation in 2016.
Assisted dying is permitted in Switzerland, and broader right-to-die laws are in place in Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg.
The largest ever poll of British doctors on assisted dying, conducted by the British Medical Association, results of which were released in October 2020, found overwhelming support for a change to the BMA’s current stance of opposition to an assisted dying law (61%), and that half of doctors personally support a change in the law (50%). The BMA’s current position – opposed to a change in the law – is due to de debated at their next Annual Representative Meeting in 2021.
In September 2020, Eminent GPs Prof Aneez Esmail and Sir Sam Everington launched a legal challenge to the Royal College of GPs alongside the Good Law Project and Dignity in Dying over RCGP Council’s decision to maintain opposition to assisted dying despite its own survey showing a dramatic shift in GP opinion.
In March 2019, the Royal College of Physicians dropped its longstanding opposition to assisted dying in favour of neutrality following a member survey.