Archbishop: new law actively supports suicide

Show of unity The Archbishop of Canterbury is backed by Jewish, Muslim and Sikh leaders © PA

This week MPs vote on laws allowing doctors to help terminally ill patients die. Yesterday Britain’s religious leaders launched a fierce attack on a plan they believe is morally wrong

Diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in 2007, Ann McPherson, a doctor and the wife and mother of doctors, bore with grace and courage all the trials and indignities associated with her illness – including handling her own chest drain. She wanted to continue her work and to spend time with her family and friends. By May 2011, the cancer had spread and she had had enough. She could no longer eat, her chest drain was pouring fluid and she had pressure sores. She expressed her longing to die.

But she couldn’t. Morphine drips, one in each wasted leg, did not help. The end came at last, after three endless, unbearable weeks of unremitting suffering. Her daughter recalls: ‘Even as she died, her body seemed furious with its final fight, gasping to the end, and in a desperate haunting shudder I found myself sitting in pools of expelled fluid. That was not what she wanted. Mum had seen this happen before and wanted to avoid it, for future patients and their families.’

Behind this sad story and thousands like it lies a fierce debate. The argument is over the right to die with a doctor’s help at the time and in the manner of your own choosing. In Britain today helping Dr McPherson to die would be a criminal offence. The government is under huge pressure to change the law. This is coming to a head on Friday when MPs have a chance to approve the Assisted Dying Bill allowing doctors to help terminally ill patients to die in some circumstances.

Change is inevitable, say reformers: remember, adultery was a crime in Spain until 1978 and gay sex was illegal in some parts of America until 2003. Today only a handful of European countries, Colombia and five American states allow some form of doctor-assisted dying, though polling last year showed that in 11 out of 15 countries surveyed, most people would extend the practice to patients who are in great physical suffering but not even terminally ill.

Which is why the Archbishop of Canterbury, arguably still the country’s senior moral leader, yesterday launched a determined new campaign to stop them. Writing in the Observer, he said he and the heads of other Christian, Jewish, Muslim and Sikh groups believed the bill went beyond ‘merely legitimising suicide to actively supporting it’. He said asking doctors to aid suicide would be ‘a change of monumental proportions both in the law and in the role of doctors. Respect for the lives of others goes to the heart of both our criminal and human rights.’

A question of life and death

Essentially the question is this. Should we ever allow doctors to kill people who are in terrible suffering?

Or are we humans simply too flawed to trust ourselves with such terrible and terminal decisions?

You Decide

  1. Can you imagine ever allowing a doctor to help you die?
  2. Do you believe people in great suffering should be allowed to die even if they are not terminally ill?


  1. Use our expert links to read the Archbishop of Canterbury’s letter. What are the three main arguments he makes against assisted dying?
  2. Use our expert links to research the late Terry Pratchett’s views on euthanasia. What are his three main arguments in favour?

Some People Say...

“Why fear death? It is the most beautiful adventure in life.”

The last words of Charles Frohman, American theatre manager

What do you think?

Q & A

I’m a bit young for all this
True. The easy reply is that you are never too young to have a terminally-ill grandparent. But perhaps the more interesting thought is that you could apply the same ethical argument that certain decisions about life and death should be beyond the scope of humans, to abortion perhaps or the death sentence or armies at war.
Why should anyone listen to the Archbishop of Canterbury?
You don’t get to be leader of around 80 million Christians by being a lightweight. More interesting answer: Justin Welby’s own daughter died in a car accident before she was one year old. He has suffered and pondered deeply.
Who is on the other side, arguing for assisted dying?
Actually a former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey. He swapped sides last year.

Word Watch

Around 8,800 people are diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the UK each year, making it the 11th most common cancer. It is difficult to treat. It rarely causes any symptoms in the early stages, so it’s often not detected until the cancer is fairly advanced.
Assisted Dying Bill
It would allow a terminally ill, mentally competent adult, making the choice of their own free will and after meeting strict legal safeguards, to request life-ending medication from a doctor. Two independent doctors would be required to agree that the patient had made an informed decision to die.

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