The House of Lords in the UK will hear testimony and debate their proposed Death with Dignity bill this week. The bill closely emulates our model legislation, the Oregon Death with Dignity Act, which Oregonians approved in 1994 and reiterated their support in 1997. Much like in the US, Death with Dignity is a hotly debated topic in the UK, and the lead up to this week’s hearing there’ve been many excellent op-eds in support of the law. Some which have come out in the last week have been by prominent religious leaders.
All of them looked at their understanding of their religious doctrines in the context of being close to loved ones who’ve died. Each challenged their Churches’ official statements and how teachings of sanctity of life are consistent with giving people who are dying more options in their final days.
Last week, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord George Carey shared why he changed his mind and now strongly supports the proposed Death with Dignity law in the UK. This week has been witness to supportive statements from Nobel Laureate Bishop Desmond Tutu and the current Bishop of Buckingham, Alan Wilson.
In each of these opinion pieces, these leaders reflected on how their religious traditions and compassion have led them to support the bill proposed by Lord Falconer. In his letter to the Daily Mail, Lord Carey directly took on claims made by opponents within his own church and reflected on his change of heart:
The fact is that I have changed my mind. The old philosophical certainties have collapsed in the face of the reality of needless suffering…In strictly observing the sanctity of life, the Church could now actually be sanctioning anguish and pain, the very opposite of the Christian message of hope.
Some complain that new laws governing the right to die would allow doctors to ‘play God’. But that is an argument without substance.
Health professionals already have power over life and death in numerous ways—such as the remarkable way in which newborn babies are kept alive until they are old enough to survive outside an incubator, or through complex surgical transplants.
The Church must start to face up to the reality of the world as it is.
On the heels of Lord Carey’s op-ed, Bishop Tutu weighed in with an opinion piece in The Guardian. Like Lord Carey, Bishop Tutu reflected on his lifetime of being a friend and spiritual advisor for people at all stage of life, including their final days. These experiences have framed how he thinks about, has documented, and discussed his own end-of-life wishes with his loved ones. They also caused him to think about the options he would want available if he were to receive a terminal diagnosis with six months or fewer to live, and he came to the conclusion, “I revere the sanctity of life—but not at any cost.”
The most recent affirmation from a religious leader was from the current Bishop of Buckingham. His statements in support of the proposed UK bill were covered by The Telegraph. Not only did he clearly explain the differences between assisted suicide and what the proposed bill would actually allow–assisted dying–he also discussed how his Church’s teachings are consistent with patient autonomy stating, “I have come to support assisted dying…precisely because I do believe strongly in the sanctity of life. Part of honouring this is respecting people’s integrity to make decisions about themselves.”
Supportive statements from prominent leaders from any community help those within the group better understand assisted death. What’s especially great about these op-eds is these religious leaders are talking about how Church doctrine supports end-of-life options outlined in Death with Dignity laws. These bishops’ public statements signal a major shift in the way people all over the world are thinking about and understanding what was once a radical idea: controlling the manner and timing of one’s own death.
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