On Friday 11th September, the Assisted Dying Bill, proposed by MP Rob Marris, was rejected after being debated in the Commons. This new legislation would have allowed terminally ill patients who had been diagnosed with less than six months to live to administer themselves with a lethal injection. Despite being favoured by 82% of the public, the opposing vote in Commons won by 212 votes. The assisted dying movement has been a hotly debated topic in the UK for many years, with numerous terminally ill patients and their families campaigning for a legal means to end their suffering with dignity and control. Arguments both for and against the right to die are concerning and compelling; consequently, a modern and efficient legislation has not yet been enforced.
It is possible that the leaders of Britain’s faith communities may have had some effect on the decision reached in Commons after uniting to write a letter advising the rejection of the bill, in which they claimed that to legalise assisted suicide would cross a “legal and ethical Rubicon”. Penned by Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, the letter outlined three main concerns representative of the views of the faith leaders. The first issue raised was that to pass the bill would be to change our opinions on suicide by not “merely legitimising it, but actively supporting it”. This seems like something of a generalisation; the bill would not mean suicide in all cases would be supported, but that a controlled and peaceful method would be available for those whose death is an imminent certainty.
Secondly, the letter addresses the important issue of safeguarding and protecting the vulnerable. There could be no guarantee that a patient would not be pressured into making the decision to die, either actively, by family members or others around them, or simply by feeling that they themselves have become a burden. Stringent measures would be undertaken to ensure that this is the right choice for the individual, such as interviews and ‘cooling periods’, where the patient would take some time to consider their option, although, of course, no one can guarantee that this would be entirely effective. In the letter, Welby highlights how in the states of Washington and Oregon, where a similar legislation is already in place, 40-60% of those who administered themselves with the lethal injection gave the fear of being a burden on their loved ones as having contributed to their decision. Whilst initially this does seem worrying, it is a natural feeling when suffering from a terminal illness; the loss of independence and increased need for support means that the patient is left physically and financially dependent on family and friends, which could lead to guilt and the feeling of having lost their personal value.
Indeed, if the bill had not been restricted exclusively to those diagnosed with less than six months to live, then this would present a much more significant issue. It could be argued that medical professionals, no matter how efficient, cannot predict with any certainty the amount of time that a patient has left to live. Someone with a six month diagnosis may live for another twelve months or longer; assisted suicide takes away this opportunity. However, the reality is that their quality of life would be compromised in any case, and that eventually, the inevitable will happen. The purpose of the Assisted Dying Bill is that it gives the individual the chance to take control of a situation that thus far has been entirely out of their control.
The third and final concern raised by Welby was that passing this legislation would result in society taking a dramatic turn, favouring practicality over compassion. He questions whether we would then become a civilisation that does not see each individual life as “worth honouring, worth protecting and worth fighting for”. However, accepting the Assisted Dying Bill is not about giving up or treating life as unimportant, but about accepting that we are all mortal, and that each person should have the autonomy to decide when enough is enough.