'Three members of my immediate family suffered terribly before they died – I hope we can find an alternative path'

John Henwood

By John Henwood

In issues of great moral significance Jersey has been remarkably conservative. The United Kingdom abolished capital punishment in 1965, but it took Jersey a further 21 years. Similarly, legal abortion became possible in most of the UK in 1967 and it was not for a further 30 years that Jersey passed comparable legislation. We are followers in these matters rather than leaders; the UK debated the issue of assisted dying in 2015 when an enabling proposal was soundly defeated, but the issue was not formally raised here at that time.

A Proposition on assisted dying is to be debated in the States this month and, separately, the UK is facing the same debate again. No one can reasonably suggest the matter has been rushed in either jurisdiction. Here, it was discussed by a citizens’ jury in 2021 before the States took an in-principle decision to approve assisted dying; from 2022 to November last year there were public consultations leading to an ethical review. Now it’s decision time.

I believe the States Assembly has not been asked to consider anything as monumental as this since the abortion debate in 1997 and before that the decision on hanging. All are matters of life and death. Like many of you I have been giving the issue a great deal of thought. My research on the views of those who have been prominent in the public debate have been instructive.

It seemed to me most of the opposition has come from those with deeply held religious views, so I started with the established church and its leader, Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He says assisted suicide (he rejects the term assisted dying) is a threat to the precious gift of life and proposes better end-of-life palliative care as an alternative; he says proposals are mistaken and dangerous. However, the Church of England is not unified behind his views; his predecessor, former Archbishop George Carey, has changed his position and now supports assisted dying. Another whose view changed was the late and much-loved Archbishop Desmond Tutu. He said: “Dying people should have the right to choose how and when they leave Mother Earth. I believe that, alongside the wonderful palliative care that exists, their choices should include a dignified assisted death.”

Methodism was the predominant branch of the broader Anglican communion in Jersey for many years and the wider Free Church is still significant. The Methodist stance is also to oppose euthanasia, although it qualifies its position: “There is a difference between not needlessly extending the dying process and accelerating it.”

The Roman Catholic position leaves no room for equivocation. Pope Francis is critical of “those who hide behind an alleged compassion to justify and approve the death of a patient … physician assisted suicide is part of a throwaway culture that offers a false compassion”. If that seems harsh it reflects the view of a great many Catholic thinkers; one prominent ethicist argues for better palliative and psychological care, proposing that direct euthanasia consists of putting an end to the lives of disabled, sick, or dying people and is morally unacceptable.

By and large the Christian view, with dissenters, is to oppose assisted dying in principle. What of other religions prominent in our society? In Judaism, the need to preserve human life is paramount and outweighs the desire to alleviate suffering. A senior rabbi at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the USA sums up the position by saying that a human’s life belongs to God and so deciding when it should end must be left to God. However, there seems to be a get-out clause: some ethical Jewish philosophers accept that Judaism allows for ending life-extending treatment in the case of a person near death.

With Islamic terrorism active in parts of the world it is perhaps surprising that Muslim teaching is like Judaism in that it believes life is sacred and is God-given, therefore it is a sin to take life. Islam is opposed to assisted dying and euthanasia. Again though, there seems room for equivocation. Islamists believe there is a difference between a decision to end life, which is wrong, and life ending by itself, but that the dividing line is not always clear.

The broad consensus of religious belief in our part of the world is that assisted dying should be opposed. Even though it is not a universally held conviction it is likely to be a strong influence on the view of believers. But we are an increasingly secular society and religious teaching will probably be of little help to non-believers. Where can they turn for guidance? The obvious place is the medical profession. Here opinions are divided. The Hippocratic Oath taken by doctors says in part: “I will use my power to help the sick to the best of my ability and judgment; I will abstain from harming or wronging any man by it.” It also includes this statement: “I will not give a drug that is deadly.”

Against this background the BMA’s official position is neither to support or oppose moves to change the law.

The thoughts of many medical professionals are summed up by Daniel Sokol, a medical ethicist, who said: “Every day, doctors make decisions knowing they will shorten patients’ lives. A doctor withdraws life support from a terminally ill patient in the knowledge that the patient will die sooner than he otherwise would; a surgeon decides against an operation to remove a brain stem tumour because, although the patient might live a little longer, life after surgery would be terrible. Yet, no one asserts that these actions are contrary to the ethics of medicine.”

So, what to conclude from my research? Though baptised and confirmed into the Anglican communion I presently hold no religious view and I find the reasoning of the wider Protestant church and Roman Catholic teaching on the matter unpersuasive. The atheist and possibly the agnostic will struggle to accept reasoning that is based on a god in which they cannot believe; many who do believe still prefer the humanist approach.

The medical profession sits on the fence, which some may regard as unhelpful, although I do find Mr Sokol’s reasoning insightful. I find the call by leaders in the Anglican and Roman Catholic communions for better palliative care as an alternative unhelpful in that it implies those who presently take on the immensely challenging task of end-of-life care are somehow lacking in the application of palliative care. I simply do not accept that.

Ultimately the issue is one of personal conviction and mine is based around the deaths of three members of my immediate family. Each of them suffered terribly. Though stoic in their suffering and demonstrating exceptional courage, I believe no one should be compelled to suffer as they did. I would not wish to suffer like that if there was an alternative. I support the proposition on assisted dying.

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