National Edition

British parliament considering a 'right to die' bill

Some religious leaders are skeptical

Published: Thursday, July 17 2014 7:20 a.m. MDT

Updated: Thursday, July 17 2014 2:53 p.m. MDT

The House of Parliament, pictured above, is considering a bill giving people "the right to die."

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A former archbishop of Canterbury is at odds with the current Anglican primate and other British faith leaders over a proposed "right-to-die" bill backers say would allow "death with dignity."

The House of Lords, the upper chamber of Britain's Parliament, is to consider a bill, according to Britain's Guardian newspaper, permitting doctors to help patients end their lives, something that under current law could be prosecuted as either manslaughter or murder. Lord Falconer of Thornton, former lord chancellor, has urged the Lords to allow the bill to move forward.

According to BBC News, the "legislation would make it legal for adults in England and Wales to be given assistance ending their own life. It would apply to those with less than six months to live. Two doctors would have to independently confirm the patient was terminally ill and had reached their own, informed decision to die."

Lord George Carey, who served the Church of England from 1991 to 2002 as archbishop of Canterbury, wrote in London's Daily Mail newspaper that his views of assisted suicide have changed: "The current law fails to address the fundamental question of why we should force terminally ill patients to go on in unbearable pain and with little quality of life," Carey said. "It is the magnitude of their suffering that has been preying on my mind as the discussion over the right to die has intensified."

Carey said the case of Tony Nicklinson, whose own right-to-die appeal was turned down by Britain's high court in 2012, also helped change his mind. Nicklinson, who suffered a stroke in 2005, was paralyzed from the neck down and suffered from "locked-in syndrome," able to communicate only through eye blinks and head gestures.

"Here was a dignified man making a simple appeal for mercy, begging that the law allow him to die in peace, supported by his family," Carey wrote. "His distress made me question my motives in previous debates. Had I been putting doctrine before compassion, dogma before human dignity?"

Another retired Anglican cleric, Desmond Tutu, former archbishop of Cape Town, South Africa, agreed with Carey, writing in The Guardian newspaper that watching the prolonged death of his friend Nelson Mandela, the former South African president, changed his mind: "I revere the sanctity of life — but not at any cost," Tutu wrote. "I confirm I don't want my life prolonged."

But Carey and Tutu may be in a minority when it comes to faith leaders, London's Telegraph newspaper notes: "The leaders of all the major faiths in Britain are issuing an unprecedented joint attack on Lord Falconer’s assisted dying Bill, condemning it as a 'grave error' which would change British society forever," the paper reported.

Signers numbered 23 religious leaders, including the Most Rev. Justin Welby, archbishop of Canterbury; Roman Catholic Cardinal Vincent Nichols, leader of the Roman Catholic Church in England and Wales; and Chief Rabbi Ephraim Mirvis. The Telegraph reported the heads of Muslim, Hindu and Sikh organizations in Britain are also signers of the letter, along with Buddhist, Jain and Zoroastrian chiefs.

"All the major Christian denominations including Methodists, Baptists, Pentecostals and free churches, have also added their voices to the warning," the paper reported.

Additionally, the Rev. Thomas Rosica, deputy Vatican spokesman, in a statement to the Daily Mail, said Catholic leaders in Rome also oppose the bill, cautioning "that (legalizing) assisted dying would put pressure on those who are no longer economically productive and said exaggerated consumerism had 'infiltrated' society."

It's expected that the measure will be considered Friday. A referral of the bill to a committee for further study would effectively block its passage, the Guardian reported.

Email: mkellner@deseretnews.com

Twitter: @Mark_Kellner

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