Flawed religious attempt to block reform in Britain

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It was inevitable, the latest attempt by senior British clergy to persuade politicians to reject Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill Bill. Led by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby—whose predecessor Lord Carey now supports the reform—nine clergy sent a letter to ‘remind’ Parliament of supposed terrible consequences.

So what points did the clerics offer to Parliamentarians, and are they valid? Let’s take a look at each of the five ‘reasons’ advanced in order to deny Brits assisted dying choice.

Firstly, the clerics argue that the ‘answer’ is palliative care. Britain boasts the world’s gold standard in palliative care practice and it’s a great credit to practitioners. But the medical literature as well as the experience of the dying and their loved ones is conclusive: palliative care simply can’t always help. Experts say that “relief of suffering remains an elusive goal for many patients” and it’s “clear that improving palliative care will not remove the need for legalizing assisted dying.”

The premise of palliative care is to provide interventions. However, sometimes, not only does interventionism fail to help, it can itself be a source of suffering. And the individual may not want interventions, but rather to alight from the train of terminal illness one or two stops before the inevitable and intolerable terminus.

Secondly, the clerics argue that jurisdictions with assisted dying laws are facing serious problems, including wrongly claiming that the Dutch are now campaigning to include dementia as a basis to seek an assisted death. This right has been enshrined in Dutch law through advance care directives since 2002. In practice, the request is largely declined by doctors.

The clerics complain that dying patients in assisted dying jurisdictions are now using the law—hardly a surprising outcome given the proportion of people now dying of cancer in their later years.

They complain about supposed ‘doctor shopping’ in Oregon. If the patient’s first (or second) doctor declines a request to consider an assisted death on the basis of the doctor’s own convictions, are these clerics suggesting that the patient ought to have their right to lawful assessment denied, because their first doctor or two were religiously opposed?

Thirdly, the clerics argue that the majority of doctors are opposed to assisted dying law reform, ironically pointing out that a quarter to a third of doctors support reform. Why should Brits be denied a choice because two thirds of doctors currently won’t participate in that choice? (What proportion of doctors would participate in abortions, currently legal?) And doctors—who make up fewer than one in two hundred Brits—don’t elect Parliament, so why are their diverse views a case for outright denial?

Let’s name this argument for what it is: an appeal to apparent ‘authority’. Clerical ‘authorities’ (who don’t represent their flocks who are overwhelmingly in favour of reform) are making an appeal of medical ‘authorities’ as the reason to reject something the public believes should be a right. Paternalism indeed.

The fourth argument spreads an icing of hubris on the cake of objections. The clerics argue that the public really don’t understand and don’t know what they mean when the great majority keep saying ‘yes’ to repeated polls on assisted dying law reform.

Public opinion in fact demonstrates the opposite of gullibility: rejection of the attempted scare campaigns of religious ‘authorities’.

Fifthly (and thankfully lastly), the clerics argue that a right to choose assisted dying will inevitably become a duty to choose it. If the theory that ‘a right becomes a duty’ were an argument to reject one right, then all rights would necessarily be rejected on precisely the same principle.

Enshrined in the Mental Capacity Act 2005, Brits already have a right to refuse any medical treatment, even if life-saving. A Jehovah’s Witness may refuse a simple blood transfusion. An elderly person may refuse burdensome surgery. Yet the right to refuse treatment can theoretically become a duty to refuse, in exactly the same manner.

If the clerics genuinely believe their theory then they would argue to Parliament with equal force that the right to refuse medical treatment should be rescinded. Why don’t they?

The real reason for opposing the assisted dying Bill appears in the letter’s preamble: the clerics “hold all human life sacred”, in other words, a ‘gift from God’. Yet contemporary British Social Attitudes surveys reveal that the majority of Brits are not religious.

So the real question for the Parliament is this: should indefensible arguments put forward by a few clerical ‘authorities’ form a basis for denying choice wanted by the overwhelming majority of voters?


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