The bishops of England and Wales have urged Catholics to write urgently to peers to ask them to speak against the Assisted Dying Bill when it comes before the House of Lords in the autumn.
In the first major intervention by the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales since the introduction of the Private Member’s Bill in May, the bishops encouraged the faithful to share personal stories with peers in the hope they may be persuaded to act against it.
“Please consider writing to Members of the House of Lords or Commons and asking them to oppose this Bill,” said a statement posted on the website of the bishops’ conference
“Whilst there are good rational arguments for defeating this legislation, this is a battle for hearts and minds and so don’t be afraid to share your own experiences of ‘dying well’ and ‘end of life care’ if you have them through your work or personal life.”
The bishops tell Catholics that the Bill, introduced in May by Baroness Meacher of Spitalfields, the chairman of Dignity in Dying – formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society – offers “textual vagueness” in place of robust safeguards.
They say it raises “a number of serious questions about law and society’s ability to protect the most vulnerable”.
“When does a right to die become a duty to die?” the statement asks. “How can we be sure that a person is free from pressure from ending their life prematurely due to societal attitudes and perceptions about a person’s ‘quality’ or ‘worth’ of life? How we be sure a person is acting voluntarily and not out of a sense of ‘being a burden’ to family, friends, health and social care services and to society?”
The bishops express fears of extension of scope experienced in all jurisdiction which have introduced assisted suicide or euthanasia with so-called safeguards and which have witnessed the erosion of legal protections at the same time as numbers of doctor-assisted deaths have risen incrementally.
The say that assisted suicide represents “false compassion” denounced by Pope Francis and warn Catholics that such a law would erode high-quality palliative care that offer seriously and terminally ill patients genuine choice at the end of their lives.
“Assisted dying could be seen as a quick and cheap alternative to proper end-of-life care,” they say. “Can we expect a full range of choice to be given to us, in the event of terminal illness, should this Bill make the statute books?”
They continue: “The Catholic Church remains opposed to any form of assisted suicide and we will scrutinise and continue to challenge this proposed legislation in the months ahead. We reaffirm our support for high quality end-of-life care, which includes spiritual and pastoral support for the one who is dying and their family.”
The Bill seeks to “enable adults who are terminally ill to be provided at their request with specified assistance to end their own lives”.
It would license doctors to supply lethal drugs, on request, to terminally ill patients so they can commit suicide, an act which at present is punishable by up to 14 years in jail under the Suicide Act of 1961.
Proposed safeguards include limiting assistance to people who are terminally ill and with a prognosis of six months of life remaining, who have mental capacity and a settled wish to die. Provision of the drugs must be authorised by two doctors and a High Court judge.
But Baroness Finlay of Llandaff, the palliative care specialist and former president of the British Medical Association who is at the forefront of the fight against the Bill, said the safeguards were effectively meaningless.
She said: “What appear at first to be safeguards are nothing of the sort, but instead are vague and empty assurances that will provide, at best, only a symbolic function.
“They present an unworkable ideal which will be virtually impossible to codify and which will be frequently and easily circumvented, misinterpreted, ignored, overlooked and rejected before they are replaced or expanded, as has been witnessed every other jurisdiction which imagined that assisted suicide or euthanasia could be controlled or contained.”
The Bill is almost identical in form to the Bill of Labour MP Rob Marris, which was overwhelmingly defeated by 330 votes to 118 in the House of Commons in 2015.
This time, it has the support of an increased number of politicians and of the Sunday Times among other media.
Baroness Meacher told the newspaper that she sought to end “intolerable suffering” and that her Bill could improve “the ability of all of us to lead happier lives in the knowledge that we will have some control over how we die”.
Yet it is vigorously opposed by a broad coalition which, besides Christian groups, includes many medics, especially those working in the palliative care sector, and activists representing the rights of disabled people.
Among them is Dr Miro Griffiths of the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds who this week appealed in a video to Catholics of the Diocese of Shrewsbury to heed the call of their bishop to oppose the Bill.
Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury issued a pastoral letter against assisted suicide just four days after the First Reading of the Meacher Bill, warning the faithful that it was an attempt to turn care-givers into killers.
In the film, Dr Griffiths, who is not a Catholic, said: “I ask you to listen to the words of the Bishop of Shrewsbury and I ask you to become informed and be engaged in the debates around assisted suicide and assisted dying.
“I implore you to write to your local MPs and local peers and those who are in the Parliamentary system and advocate that this Bill is not safe and that this Bill will provide a dangerous situation for people who are disabled and for people with health conditions and impairments.”
This week, Bishop Davies repeated his appeal. “Parliament’s emphatic rejection in recent years of proposals for assisted suicide must not lead to any complacency in being ready to stand up for the sanctity of human life and standing beside the most vulnerable once again threatened by the euthanasia lobby,” he said.
“A new Bill is being brought before Parliament in the autumn backed by a well-orchestrated campaign using the language of compassion to authorise members of our medical and caring professions to assist in killing,” he continued.
“By any measure this is a seismic change in society, the medical profession and in the way we have always viewed the care of the sick and the dying.
“Now is the time to raise our voices. We each have a voice and perhaps also a story to share with those who represent us in Parliament or with the peers who will first debate this Bill in the House of Lords.
Bishop Davies added: “We can’t leave this task to someone else or delay giving our witness to the value of life and the care of the most vulnerable which has underpinned our society from the beginning.”
Guidance on how to contact a peer or an MPs can be found on Parliament’s website.
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