News Analysis

Britain: An island of sanity

Church leaders help to defeat a proposal from Guernsey’s chief minister

The campaign for assisted suicide, frustrated by Parliament in 2016, turned its attention to a smaller target: the island of Guernsey. But last week the proposal was defeated in Guernsey’s parliament, the States of Deliberation, by 22 to 16.
Although Guernsey, an island of 60,000, is a Crown dependency which passes its own laws without consulting Britain, this was a debate with wider resonance.

Critics of the proposal asked whether Guernsey could become a “British Dignitas”, a convenient destination for UK citizens who wanted to kill themselves. “First British suicide clinic”, declared the front page of the Daily Mirror. Gavin St Pier, the island’s Chief Minister, downplayed that possibility.

Even so, St Pier and his allies adopted a tone which suggested they thought the change had significance beyond Guernsey. “Governments can choose to lead or they can choose to follow the will of the people,” St Pier tweeted. “Either way, giving terminally ill individuals their right to informed end of life choices is inevitable.

The difference is simply: when?” Dignitas itself wrote to States of Deliberation members, offering to advise them on the regulatory details if the proposal (in Guernsey terms, a requête) passed into law. The actor Sir Patrick Stewart appeared alongside St Pier to support the Chief Minister’s efforts. The Guardian’s Harriet Sherwood suggested that, “if passed, the move is likely to reignite the debate in the UK”.

The failure of the requête has not received much coverage. But it is worth considering – as a sign, not so much of the compelling force of pro-life arguments, as of how much the risks of assisted suicide can be easily perceived, and for many are more important than the slogans about choice and dignity.

The opposition was broad and diverse. The local branch of the British Medical Association pointed out the difficulty for doctors: they need to be registered with the General Medical Council to practise in Guernsey, but the GMC’s guidance is clear: assisting a suicide is a criminal offence.

The medical agencies’ advice was, admittedly, quite guarded. Not so the statement from the Guernsey Disability Alliance (GDA). “We believe it is of paramount importance that the requête should be defeated,” it said. There wasn’t enough research on the likely effects, nor were the terms of the proposal well defined.

Legislators were asked whether they “agreed in principle to the development of a suitable legal regime to permit assisted dying in Guernsey”. The details – on safeguards, requirements for residence, the role of doctors, consent and several other matters – were left for later. What, the GDA asked, are the limits of what the campaigners called “unbearable suffering” and “terminal illness”?

The strongest statements came from Church leaders. For the local bishop, Philip Egan of Portsmouth, the requête, if passed, would ask medical staff to commit grave sin. “It would be an intolerable and utterly immoral demand to ask medical staff, doctors and nurses, dedicated to preserving life, to extinguish the life of another human person,” he said.

Bishop Egan joined more than 50 Christian leaders, from 41 denominations, in a joint statement which said that, while “choice” was important, there were moral considerations of greater importance. The vulnerable should be offered support rather than be helped to commit suicide, the letter said. A new law would disrupt doctor-patient relations, endanger the physically and mentally ill, and might well be expanded over time.

One of those leaders was John Guille, an Anglican clergyman who chairs the board of Les Bourgs palliative care hospice. He told the Catholic Herald that he thought the letter was “influential”, partly because it represented such a range of denominations.

He also pointed out that the proposal lacked political backing. At Guernsey’s last general election, in 2016, no manifesto mentioned the subject. The five-man Policy and Resources Committee – Guernsey’s central political committee, on which the Chief Minister sits – was not in favour of the proposal: St Pier had only one supporter, while the other three opposed it. Opposition to the requête was led by Jonathan le Tocq, a member of the committee, a minister in the Free Church and a former Chief Minister.

A couple of States of Deliberation members said they had no principled objection to assisted suicide, but felt the plans were inadequate and hadn’t been thought through. Overall, the debate seems to have been cautious rather than impassioned. But between those like le Tocq, who strongly opposed the idea, and others concerned about the detail, the proposal was easily defeated.

It is possible, given the amount of money and fashionable opinion behind assisted suicide, that the campaign will simply take this defeat on the chin and find another target. A more hopeful prospect is that Guernsey could become a beacon of palliative care. The members backed, by a 37-1 vote, a review of end-of-life care.

John Guille says he was “hoping and praying” for this outcome. His hospice will now be involved in an island-wide effort to improve care. “We are a sufficiently small community,” he says, “for all the various agencies who care for the dying to come together to build upon the quality of palliative care already available.”