Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury and Archbishop of Wales, has strongly denounced assisted suicide just days after his predecessor reiterated his support for the controversial practice.
In a statement submitted to the British Medical Journal, Lord Williams of Oystermouth warned medics that a change in the law would lead to “overstrained families” and “overstretched medical resources” exerting pressure on many patients to take their lives by assisted suicide.
He questioned whether the progress and provision of palliative care in the UK could survive “overburdened budgets” when enabling the suicides of people who required nursing and hospice care became the cheaper option.
Lord Williams also raised grave doubts about ability to make correct prognoses of illnesses that might justify the prescriptions of lethal drugs envisioned by the Assisted Dying Bill of Baroness Meacher, noting that it was a question that also deeply troubled groups supporting the rights of disabled people.
His position directly contradicted that expressed by Lord Carey of Clifton, also a former Archbishop of Canterbury, who just days earlier reaffirmed his well-documented support for assisted suicide, and declared in an article in BMJ that there is “nothing holy about agony”.
Lord Williams said: “We have to be aware of the reality of pressure on seriously ill patients to take certain decision … which may very understandably come from overstrained families as well as overstretched medical systems.
“We should note that fear of such pressure within the medical system may discourage seriously ill patients from seeking appropriate medical help; the issues of doctor-patient trust involved are real.”
He said: “This country currently has an enviable record of progress in and provision for palliative care. Will this survive in the world of overburdened budgets if there are less expensive options?”
He added: “There are immensely complicated questions around how the law is to identify conditions that would ‘justify’ medical intervention that has the direct and intended consequence of ending life.
“The obvious risks in labelling certain conditions in this way are of alarmist messages to patients at large, and of pressure to claim greater prognostic certainty than is realistic.
“Many disability groups also have strong views on this set of problems.”
The comments of both Lord Williams, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002-2012, and Lord Carey, who was in office from 1991-2002, follow the introduction into Parliament of the third Bill in six years aimed at decriminalising assisted suicide in England and Wales.
A similar Bill has also been introduced into the Scottish Assembly.
The Assisted Dying Bill, a Private Member’s Billof Baroness Meacher, the chair of Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society), would “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 who appeared to meet certain conditions. This is assisting suicide, which is prohibited by the Suicide Act of 1961.
At present, the Bill proposes to permit assisted suicide to mentally competent but terminally ill adults with a settled wish to die and who have six months of life remaining.
Two doctors and a High Court judge would be asked to authorise the prescription of lethal drugs and a nurse or a doctor would be present when they are ingested by the patients.
Although supporters of the Bill insist the provisions are modest, opponents of assisted suicide argue that the proposed safeguards are symbolic, meaningless and unenforceable.
They say the law would soon permit the rapid expansion of assisted suicide, and possibly euthanasia, to broader categories of people following the experiences of every jurisdiction in the world where such practices have been legalised already.
The Assisted Dying Bill is scheduled to receive its Second Reading in the House of Lords on October 22.
The British Medical Association was this week due to debate proposals to abandon its traditional opposition to assisted suicide in favour of a position of neutrality.
The Catholic bishops of England and Wales last week wrote to the faithful to encourage them to actively oppose the Bill.
Image caption: Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams (DANNY LAWSON/AFP via Getty Images)
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