Letter on Dignitas and the Coroners Bill

Rowan Williams, Vincent Nichols and Jonathan Sacks wrote to the Telegraph on Tuesday to voice opposition to the Coroners and Justice Bill currently making its way through Parliament.  They allege that the amendment dealing with assisted suicide introduced by Lord Falconer (and reproduced here, on the Dignity in Dying website) is a step on the road to legalisation of euthanasia:

Now, by way of an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill, the legality of assisting people to end their own lives is once again to be debated. The proposed amendment seeks to protect from prosecution those who help friends or relatives to go abroad to commit suicide in one of the few countries where the practice is legal.

It would surely put vulnerable people at serious risk, especially sick people who are anxious about the burden their illness may be placing on others. Moreover, our hospice movement, an almost unique gift of this country to wider humankind, is the profound and tangible sign of another and better way to cope with the challenges faced by those who are terminally ill, by their loved ones and by those who care for them.

This amendment would mark a shift in British law towards legalising euthanasia. We do not believe that such a fundamental change in the law should be sought by way of an amendment to an already complex Bill. It should be rejected.

I’m not backwards in coming forwards in my support for the legalisation of euthanasia – but the C&J Bill, if it really is a step in that direction, is a very small one indeed.  So, while the Bill is very compex – “sprawling” would be a better word – that the amendment concerning assisted suicide is really not nearly as big a deal as I think the trio makes out.  Nor is it clear to me that there would be any greater risk to the vulnerable generated by the Bill than there is already.

On top of that, it’s curious how these men of the cloth have very little regard for the plight of those who are not vulnerable – for those, that is, who have simply had enough and would like help in bringing about an end to a life that is no longer worth the fight.

Little regard?  What about the reference to hospices?  Well, that’s just it.  Hospices are great things – but the letter commits the fallacy of thinking that hospices count as a cure-all for the distress of the dying.  They aren’t.  Some people have just had enough, and pointing out how great the hospice movement is misses the point, because for them, hospice treatment would not be the better option.  Worse, to shunt people towards hospices when hospice care is not what they want is good neither for the patient nor the hospice – and it ignores the distinct possibility that the people who are being so shunted are, by the letter’s own lights, likely to be vulnerable.  If it’s the unwelcome pressure that is the backbone of the Archbishops’ and Rabbi’s concern, then pressuring the ill into a care pathway that they do not want seems like a very strange way of going about things indeed.

Just as a point about the rhetorical strategy adopted, I’d add to these points that using the word “Surely” is frequently a shorthand for “I have this gut feeling but I can’t be bothered trying to present an argument for its plausibility” – and the use of the word in the letter here strikes me as conforming to the rule.  And the patriotic appeal to the “almost unique gift of this country to wider humankind” (is that “almost unique” as in “not unique”, then?) is simply nauseating.

Incidentally, a letter to The Times from a number of members of the House of Lords deals with the possible legal and jurisprudential implications of the amendments.  It’s still against the amendments – but it is so in a much more considered manner.

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