Archbishop says relaxing assisted suicide law is “a moral mistake”

February 9, 2010

From, 90 February 2010 (Story by Martin Beckford, religious affairs correspondent)

The Archbishop of Canterbury has warned that the relaxation of assisted suicide law crosses a “moral boundary” into “very dangerous territory”.

Just weeks before final guidelines are published by the Crown Prosecution Service, Dr Rowan Williams said that granting the right to die would be a “moral mistake” that damaged the rights of the most vulnerable in society.

In a strongly-worded presidential address to the Church of England’s governing body, the General Synod, he also criticised the Government’s attempts to limit religious freedom under the Equality Bill.

The archbishop added that he was “profoundly sorry” if he appeared to ignore the value of homosexuals in the Anglican Communion, and admitted the 70-million strong church was in “chaos” with “local schisms” over sexuality. He also urged conservatives and liberals in England’s debate over women bishops to see it “in three dimensions”.

His comments come as the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, prepares to issue his final clarification on when people will be charged for helping someone end their life.

Assisting a death remains a crime punishable by up to 14 years’ imprisonment under the 1961 Suicide Act, but more than 100 Britons have taken loved ones to die at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland without being charged.

Mr Starmer was ordered by the Law Lords last summer to set out the circumstances when cases would be brought in England and Wales, as they backed the case brought by Debbie Purdy, who has multiple sclerosis.

His draft guidelines published in September set out a checklist of conditions when prosecutions would not be launched, such as if the victim was terminally ill or disabled, had a strong determination to die, or if the person helping them did not profit financially from the death. Following a public consultation, the final guidelines due in the next month are not expected to differ substantially.

The Archbishop, in his first public comments on the issue since June, told Synod on Tuesday: “The Church does not assume that it has the right to impose any solution; but it will argue fiercely that granting a ‘right to die’ is not only a moral mistake but the upsetting of a balance of freedoms.

“The freedom of one person to utilise in full consciousness a legal provision for assisted suicide brings with it a risk to the freedom of others not to be manipulated or harassed or simply demoralised when in a weakened condition.

“Once the possibility is there, it will… create an ethical framework in which the worthwhileness of some lives is undermined by the legal expression of what feels like public impatience with protracted dying and ‘unproductive’ lives.”

He conceded that it is impossible to remain unmoved by the “agonising” cases made public recently. Kay Gilderdale was acquitted of attempted murder but admitted assisting suicide after she helped end the life of her daughter, Lynn, who had ME for 17 years. Frances Inglis was jailed for murder after giving her brain-damaged son, Thomas, a fatal overdose.

But the Archbishop, the most senior cleric in the Church, went on: “Most of us here, I suspect, would say that the balance of liberties still comes out against a new legal framework, and in favour of holding to the principle… that the legal initiating of a process whose sole or main purpose is to end life is again to cross a moral boundary, and to enter some very dangerous territory in practical terms.

“Most of us would still hold that the current state of the law, with all its discretionary powers and nuances about degrees of culpability in extreme cases, serves us better than an opening of the door into provision for the legal ending of lives.”

Dr Williams also echoed the words of Pope Benedict XVI when he criticised Harriet Harman’s Equality Bill, which churches feared would prevent them from being able to require that clergy and lay workers abide by Christian morality. The contentious clause in the anti-discrimination law was removed in the Lords.

The Archbishop said: “The freedom of government to settle debated moral questions for the diverse communities of civil society is not something we should endorse too rapidly.

“Looking at it strictly from the rather abstract viewpoint I have been taking here, what matters is that government acknowledges that there is a boundary that it is risky to cross without creating ideological powers for the state that could be deeply dangerous for liberty in general.”




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