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Assisted Dying Bill 2015: Why legalising death-by-doctor is a bad idea…

woody allen2


“Most of the time I don’t have much fun. The rest of the time I don’t have any fun at all” (Woody Allen).

This blog is short of laughs but please read on, for it considers a truly vital question: should the law be changed to allow doctors to prescribe lethal drugs with the aim of ending the life of a patient? It is partly prompted by Rachel Aviv’s excellent but disturbing article “Letter from Belgium: The Death Treatment”  in the June 22 2015 edition of The New Yorker and partly prompted by the Assisted Dying (No 2) Bill which is to be debated in the House of Commons on 11th September 2015.

Things I’d rather not think about.

“Neither the sun nor death can be looked at with a steady eye”   La Rochefoucauld,  .

Britain in 2015 does not “do” death, dying or grieving very well. Generally they are kept out of sight, out of polite conversation and out of mind until they force themselves upon us. Even top medical specialists who have to deal with these issues regularly find it hard, as I discovered when my Mother was dying of leukaemia in hospital in London and the consultants avoided eye contact and preferred not to acknowledge that her life was ending. Robert Peston became a media story when he flouted convention by speaking about his grief and the clumsiness of his male friends after his wife died[1].

mourning (1 of 1)Another painful subject, that can give grief, death and dying a run for their money is dementia. To watch a loved one gradually being taken away by dementia is to witness a sort of living death. Then there is the fear of losing one’s independence, and fear of the pain that cannot be controlled by drugs and the fear of dying itself. All this against a backdrop of alarming inspection reports by the Care Quality Commission which raise the possibility that though advances in medicine may allow us to live longer, the time gained may turn out to be a fate worse than death. (A paradox nailed by Woody Allen’s insight that “Life is full of misery, loneliness and sufferingmourning2 (1 of 1)—and it’s all over much too soon”)

Against this background, it may at first seem unreasonable and uncaring to oppose a change in the law intended to ensure that a competent adult can make up his/her own mind when and how to die, but I want to explain some of the reasons why this is not so, and why the Assisted Dying (No 2) Bill 2015[2] which aims to amend the law to allow medics to assist people to die would be damaging for society as a whole, and a step too far.  A step we would be wiser not to take.

the bill addresses the wrong problems.

First we should be clear that if the bill is passed it will do nothing to address people’s fears of growing old alone. It will not address fears of increasing dependency or of being at the mercy of inadequate social and health care. It will not help anyone suffering from dementia[3]. Rather than making it legal for doctors to prescribe lethal drugs as if they were a cure, we should be putting the necessary money and thought into providing reliable and good social, health and palliative care for all who need it regardless of post-code. This would go some way towards removing the fears associated with the end of life and it would do so without the darker consequences of the present bill referred to below. The wider topic of how one provides care for an aging population is the subject of Professor Atul Gawande’s stimulating Reith Lectures[4] and his well-researched and accessible book Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End[5] but this is a subject that cannot be considered further in this blog. Instead I shall briefly set out the main reasons I believe the proposed bill should be opposed.

Death is not just an individual matter.

Supporters of the bill present the issues it raises as matters of individual choice. They argue that one should be allowed to choose the time and manner of one’s death but they fail to acknowledge that changing the rules so that doctors can administer lethal drugs with the intention of ending life has implications for society as a whole. It is not just an individual matter. This is one of the reasons why the arguments about what the law should be are so very difficult. One of the many perplexing issues to be faced is, at what point must the autonomy of the individual yield to the greater good of society as a whole? Different people will have different views, depending upon how they perceive the possible risks to society but we should all be able to acknowledge that giving supremacy to the choice for the individual has significant consequences for society as a whole just as we should acknowledge that the law as it now stands gives supremacy to society as a whole and limits individual choice.

allowing doctors to prescribe lethal drugs intending to cause death will change the doctor/patient relationship.

dancing with mr dQuite apart from undermining trust between doctor and patient, the doctor who administers lethal drugs is changed by the process.   Anyone doubting this should read “Dancing with Mr D: Notes on Life and Death” which is the memoir of a doctor working for the terminally ill in a nursing home in Holland[6].

Always to care, Never to kill was the title of an article in which thirteen eminent ethicists explained why they believed euthanasia[7] to be contrary to the faith of Jews and Christians and based on a grave moral error, and why it undermined the medical profession. Though written in 1992 the article remains pertinent and powerful[8].

Allowing this patient to choose death-by-doctor will affect other patients.

If you permit a doctor and his/her medical team to assist a patient to die by prescribing and supplying poisonous drugs then this will become a ‘treatment option’ in all but name. This has profound ramifications which have not been adequately publicised.

It is surely likely that when lethal drugs become an available ‘treatment’ option the freedom to choose to receive them may subtly become a duty to request assistance in dying. The obligation to choose death will be unspoken but none the less experienced as real by the person concerned. Advances in medicine allow us to live longer and increase the years of life in which we are likely to be dependent upon others. Such dependency, viewed objectively, imposes obligations upon others. An elderly person may (perfectly reasonably) come to feel that they are a burden to others. Such a person may then feel compelled to hasten his/her death because he/she feels an obligation to do something to remove the burden. Can one really say that choosing to die in these circumstances is a truly voluntary choice? I don’t think so.

I would rather err on the side of caution and want to be very sure that we do not create a society in which someone who is vulnerable or dependent feels an obligation to hasten their own death by asking for a lethal drug.

who matters?

To permit assisted suicide to some categories of people is to tiptoe along the path towards becoming a society in which some lives are valued more than others. This raises the possibility that some lives may in time be regarded as ‘lives not worth living?’ Of course nothing could be further from the intention of those who propose the present bill, but it does not make any difference that one’s motive for allowing assisted suicide is merely to give the right of self-determination to the competent adult, nor that one did not intend to imply that some lives were of more value than others.

the arbitrary  restrictions in the bill are not sustainable.

Since the justification for changing the law is the belief that people should be allowed to choose their own fate, it is hard to see how some of the restrictions in the bill will be sustainable in the long term, and hard to see why they were included in the first place (unless they are merely intended to make the bill less controversial in the short term). The bill will only allow someone to be helped to die if he/she is over 18, competent, ‘reasonably expected to die within six months’ from an ‘inevitably progressive condition’ and has been ordinarily resident in England and Wales for not less than a year[9]. The point is succinctly made in “Always to care, Never to Kill”

“Arguments for euthanasia usually appeal to our supposed right of self-determination and to the desirability of relieving suffering. If a right to euthanasia is grounded in self-determination, it cannot reasonably be limited to the terminally ill. If people have a right to die, why must they wait until they are actually dying before they are permitted to exercise that right? Similarly, if the warrant for euthanasia is to relieve suffering, why should we be able to relieve the suffering only of those who are self-determining and competent to give their consent?”[10]

It must only be a matter of time before a competent adult who suffers from a disease which he/she finds excessively burdensome and who has a clear and settled intention to die will argue that it is unfair, unjust and unreasonable to deny him a prescribed lethal drug which would be available if only he/she had a terminal illness since his suffering will be greater / last longer than someone with a terminal illness unless he is assisted to die.  It will then be said that it is the arbitrary requirement of the law is forcing him to suffer for an indeterminate period.

summary and Conclusion.

An independent committee: the New York State Task Force on Life reported as follows:

[embeddoc url=”” download=”all”]

There is also the inconvenient truth that no matter how settled someone’s intention to die appears to be, people change their mind.  Read Alison Davis’s evidence to the House of Lords in the context of an earlier bill to legalise assisted suicide…

Ms Davis: “I have two hats on. I am speaking as an individual today but I do co-ordinate a group for disabled people called No Less Human which is for disabled and terminally ill people, their families and carers. I have spina bifida and hydrocephalus, osteoporosis and emphysema. Nineteen years ago I wanted to die. I have severe spinal pain which is not well-controlled even with morphine. You will excuse me if I am a bit hesitant but I just took morphine 10 minutes ago so I am not quite as altogether as I might be. I have severe pain which cannot be well controlled. When it is at its worse I cannot move, I cannot think, I cannot speak and it can go on for hours; there is no prospect of it getting any better, in fact it is almost certain to get worse. Due to that and a combination of other factors, 19 years ago I decided I wanted to die. It was a settled wish; it lasted 10 years. In the first five of those years I tried to commit suicide several times. They were serious attempts, most of them, and I tried several different methods. I was saved only because my friends arrived in time. My door was never locked at that time and they came in and found I was losing consciousness and they took me to the hospital. At the hospital I was treated several times against my wishes. I told the doctors that I did not want to be treated. They asked for my permission to pump my stomach and I said no. They said, “If we don’t, you will die”. I remember at the time thinking in a very wry way that it was almost funny because that had been my intention; I had wanted to die. So they waited until I lost consciousness and then treated me anyway. Had the form of declaration which this Bill proposes been available at that time I would have signed it with no hesitation whatsoever because my intention was to die and I was suffering then the same pain which is unbearable—except that I have to bear it—that I am now. If the Bill had been law 19 years ago I would not be here speaking with you now. That, in a sense, would give my doctors, who at that time thought I was terminally ill, a very convenient self-fulfilling prophecy because they said I was terminally ill. Actually they were wrong and here I am 19 years later. Had my life been ended by the terms of this Bill nobody would have ever known firstly that my doctors were wrong and secondly that the future held something better for me than would have appeared to be the case 19 years ago. I was saved against my wishes.  I lived on. For 10 years I wanted to die. I note that the Bill has a 14 day waiting period during which the person requesting euthanasia can change their mind. That would not have served me at all: 14 days to change my mind when I wanted to die for 10 years. I think this Bill is extremely dangerous. It sets out supposed safeguards to prevent what is called abuse of what would be the law but I believe that the law itself would be an abuse of sick and disabled people. I sat in at the earlier session and I heard the discussion about people who wanted to commit suicide but cannot and need assistance. By describing safeguards to the Bill in effect we are saying that the sort of people that are specified are right to want to die and should be helped to die, whereas people who are not specified who may well be equally desperate to die and possibly for much the same reason would be considered wrong to want to die and would be helped to live. I think that sends out a very negative message to people like me who suffer on a daily basis and who need help and support to live with dignity. We hear so much about dying with dignity that it almost becomes a slogan or a catchphrase and it suggests that people like me are only dignified when we are dead. …”

For all these reasons the Assisted Dying Bill (No2) 2015 is bad public policy.   That should be enough reason to oppose the bill.

For Christians, there are additional profound and fundamental reasons why assisting someone to kill himself/herself is problematic.  .  As Prof Gilbert Meilander succinctly explained:

“Christians have held that suicide is morally wrong because they have seen in it a contradiction of our nature as creatures, an unwillingness to receive life moment by moment from the hand of God without ever regarding it as simply ‘our’ possession…  We might think of ourselves as characters in a story of which God is the author….characters do not determine the plot of their life’s story, and it is a contradiction of their very being if they attempt to bring the story to its conclusion. We are dependent beings, and to think otherwise—to make independence our project, however sincerely—is to live a lie, to fly in the face of reality.” (“Bioethics, A primer for Christians” 2nd Ed 2005, p 6)

A similar point was made by a group of Jewish and Christian theologians, ethicists, philosophers and scholars in “Always to Care, Never to Kill”

“As Christians and Jews, we have learned to think of human life -our own and that of others- as both gift and trust. We  have been entrusted to one another and are to care for one another. We have not been authorized to make comparative  judgments about the worth of lives or to cut short the years that God gives to us or others. We are to relieve suffering when we can, and to bear with those who suffer, helping them to bear their suffering, when we cannot. We are never to “solve” the problem of suffering by eliminating those who suffer. Euthanasia, once established as an option, will inevitably tempt us to abandon those who suffer. This is especially the case when  we permit ourselves to be persuaded that their lives are a burden to us or to them. The biblical tradition compels us to seek and exercise better  ways to care. We may think that we care when we kill, but killing is never caring. Whatever good intentions we might invoke to excuse it, killing is the rejection of God’s command to care and of his help in caring”



It is heart-rending to see a loved one in pain and suffering.  Rather than legalising death-by-doctor, we need to press our MPs to make available the necessary resources to ensure the provision of reliable social,  health and palliative care.



  1. . To track the bill see
  2. Since dementia of itself is not a terminal disease and someone suffering from advanced dementia will not have mental capacity to demand that the doctor provides him/her with a lethal drug.
  3. Downloadable from
  5. (At the time of writing there are 13 used copies available for £0.01 each.)
  6. The borderline between ‘euthanasia’ and ‘assisted suicide’ is thin. A doctor who prescribes a lethal tablet assists with suicide. A doctor who puts the tablet on the tongue of a patient practices euthanasia.
  8. Section 2.
  10. ↑

“Not in God’s Name: confronting Religious Violence” by Jonathan Sacks

Not in God's Name

How is it that in 2015 a supposedly civilized Europe is left speechless by ISIS’s medieval cruelty?   Where have religious extremists sprung from and why does their cause appeal to the many people who fight for them (some of whom come from England)?   What is to be done about it and what will happen if we fail to engage with these issues?
Dr Sacks’ timely book addresses all these issues and offers both a searching analysis and hope.
Readers may find it helpful to read section 3, which offers practical insights, first and then to read sections 1 and 2 which offer the theory which underpins part 3.
This is an important book and I hope it is widely read.

Some quotations to whet your appetite….

“To paraphrase Kierkegaard:’When a king dies, his power ends. When a prophet dies, his influence begins’ “(p236). I hope this is proved wrong by this book becoming influential in Dr Sack’s lifetime.

“Above all; never seek revenge. Do not believe you can rectify the past by avenging it. That way you merely succeed in perpetuating the past instead of healing it”(p 245)

“Faith is God’s call to see his trace in the face of the Other. But that needs a theology of the Other, which is what I offer in this book” (page 25)

“Science, technology, the free market and the liberal democratic state have enabled us to reach unprecedented achievements in knowledge, freedom, life expectancy and affluence.  They are among the greatest achievements of human civilisation and are to be defended and cherished.  But they do not and cannot answer the three questions every reflective individual will ask at some time in his or her life: Who am I? Why am I here? How then shall I live?  These are questions to which the answer is prescriptive not descriptive, substantive not procedural.  The result is that the twenty-first century has left us with a maximum of choice and minimum of meaning.” (p 13)

“What printing was to the Reformation, the Internet is to radical political Islam, turning it into a global force capable of inciting terror and winning recruits throughout the world.  The extremists have understood that in many ways religion was made for the twenty-first century.  It is a more global force than national states.  Religious radicals use the new electronic media with greater sophistication than their secular counterparts.  And they have developed organisational structures to fit our time”  (p 17).  (Time that the religious non radicals wised up and used the potential of the new electronic media and adapted their organisational structures to fit 2015 methinks).

“The contemporary West is the most individualistic era of all time.  Its central values are in ethics, autonomy; in politics, individual rights; in culture, post-modernism; and in religion ‘spirituality’.  Its idol is the self, its icon the ‘selfie’, and its operating systems the free market and the post-ideological, managerial liberal democratic state.  In place of communities we have flash-mobs.  We are no longer pilgrims but tourists.  We no longer know who we are or why.” (p41).  This critique is apt.  

Reflections in the wake of the 2015 election results

Number 10 Downing Street is the headquarters and London residence of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Facebook allows you to hear people’s raw reaction to the election and what FB reveals is disturbing.  Given the false hopes created by inaccurate media forecasts, expressions of shock and disappointment were to be expected.  What I had not expected was the level of anger bordering on rage, and hostility bordering on hatred.  So here are a few reflections:-

➡ Every person involved in the election (be they voter, candidate, spin-doctor or commentator) is a person loved by God and whom God has not written off. Furthermore no matter how misguided or offensive his/her views may appear to us to be, and may in fact be, the person is made in the image of God and therefore he/she as a person is worthy of our respect.

Jesus’ followers frequently misunderstood Him, got the wrong end of the stick or held misguided or offensive views and it is instructive to consider how He responded.  Here are a few examples:-

  1. The Mother of James and John asks Jesus to secure places of power for her sons (Matt 20:21). Jesus did not round on her or ridicule her.  He patiently explained the misguided assumptions that lay behind her request and he continued to care for and lead her children.  He did not give up on them or her.
  2. When the disciples misunderstood Jesus’ teaching he treated them with respect and explained it to them. (E.g. Matt 15:10-20 and again Matt 16:5-12).  He did not turn on them, ridicule them or give up on them.
  3. The disciples were concerned about ‘who was the greatest’. Their perception of ‘greatness’ was totally at odds with Jesus’.  Jesus did not react with anger or despair or turn on his disciples.  He patiently taught them (Mark 9:36) and showed them how to be truly great (John 13:5-19).
  4. Even after Jesus rose from the dead his followers continued to be ‘foolish and …slow of heart’. (Jesus’ description of Cleopas and friend on the Road to Emmaus.  Luke 24:25).  Again Jesus did not give up on them or turn on them. He wanted the best for them and did all that was necessary to enable them to thrive.

➡ There are people of good will and good intention in all political parties. There are sincere followers of Jesus in most[1] political parties who are doing their best to give expression to their faith.  I am grateful to them for that.  Jesus tells his followers to influence society (i.e. to be ‘salt’ and ‘light’ Matt 5:13-16) and political participation is one way of doing this.  If in our disappointment we vilify, abuse or hate those who caused it this is not only contrary to Jesus’ teaching, it is also unwise because it deters good people from standing for parliament.

➡ I have been struck by the tribal nature of many of the FB comments. Many people are ideologically committed to a political party and think nothing of abusing their opponents (or all politicians in general).  One example from FB will suffice:-

“I despise Labour far more than I despise the Tories, to be honest. The Tories may be evil, but Labour is parasitic. They leech off popular desperation to escape Tory hell, by presenting themselves as the only ‘alternative’, despite offering practically no actual alternative.  The Tories are evil, but Labour are fatal to the left.”


➡ De-humanising one’s opponent is a dangerous step on the way to abuse of power. Watch the gripping and disturbing BBC documentary “Five Steps to Tyranny” for proof of this


We need to remind ourselves that we are speaking about and thinking about real people who are grappling with very difficult policy choices to which there is rarely a simple or clear answer.  We could credit them with good motives and doing their honest best (however misguided it may appear to be).  The way we react to the election result matters.  It will affect relationships.  The way we talk about the result will have consequences.  For example, if children hear a continual narrative that mocks or belittles or politicians of a particular party what message are we giving them about politicians generally and how we handle disagreements?

➡ The only cause Christians can be 100% committed to is following Jesus. Putting it bluntly, devoting oneself to anything else becomes idolatry and this includes devotion to a political party or its ideology.  A hymn written in the 19th century remains popular today

“My hope is built on nothing less
than Jesus’ blood and righteousness…
On Christ, the solid Rock, I stand;
All other ground is sinking sand”.

In our disappointment or elation at the election result we have have an opportunity to reflect on the whether we have invested too much of ourselves and our hopes on ‘other ground’ such as political success for a party/ideology.

➡ Disagreeing well is difficult. It requires grace.  This is not a quality  on display at Prime Minister’s Questions and was not conspicuous in the election campaign.  Jesus disagreed with people well.  He was not concerned to save face (either for his own sake or for the good of the cause: i.e. doing His Father’s will).  Instead He was willing to serve and was abused, ridiculed and executed in public without striking back.

T.V. and the media make demands which are not compatible with disagreeing well and our politicians too readily oblige.  Appearance has become more important than substance.  The spin doctors have learned from the USA and have adapted the well known saying

“‘No one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people”[2]

Looking back over the election campaign and it is hard to remember anyone from any party who admitted a mistake and apologised for it.  (I do not mean the sort of apology which is followed by a ‘but’).  By contrast it is easy to think of gratuitous personal abuse and character attacks.  Perhaps we could write to our MPs/ the party leaders in question whenever we see examples of personal character attacks and tell them how offensive it is and occasionally write to thank them when they do behave graciously (I wonder how many gracious letters MP’s receive?).

➡ Churchill said

“Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe.  No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise.  Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time” (House of Commons 11 November 1947[3].

Not least of Democracy’s problems is that all voters are required to resolve their preferences for multiple complex policy choices with one simple cross.  Every voter is required to compromise because he/she is unlikely to support every policy choice of any party.  Those disappointed with the results who are now angry and turning to hatred for the voters who made the result possible are losing sight of this.  Nurturing hatred or ridicule for one’s opponent is not a healthy way to go and we need to recognise this and seek help.  We need to find a better way.  Loving those with whom we disagree, just as Jesus did, is what we aim for.

➡ Jesus calls His followers to be a beacon, lighting the way for others (whatever their political persuasion) and collectively pointing to Him[4]. His command to ‘love one another’ transcends matters of political ideology or nationalism (Matt 5:43-44. Luke 6:27,35.  John 15:12, 17).    The picture of people giving themselves in worship of Christ notwithstanding that they are of multiple different tribes, languages and nations in Revelation 4 is inspirational but it doesn’t just start in heaven.  We are called to that sort of unity here and now which is why it is important to reflect carefully on our reactions to the election…


[1] I would have said ‘all’ but this would be an assumption.  I know nothing about some of the smaller parties eg the ‘Yorkshire First’ (6811 votes) /‘Cannabis Is Safer than Alcohol’ party (8,419 votes)

[2] H.L.Mencken, adapted from his Notes On Journalism in the Chicago Tribune 19/09/1926.  According to the original quote said “No one in this world, so far as I know—and I have researched the records for years, and employed agents to help me—has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of the plain people. Nor has anyone ever lost public office thereby.”

[3]From Churchill by Himself, page 574 accessed 09/05/15.

[4] But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.  (1 Peter 2:9).


Where have all the statesmen gone?


This is the moment for a Statesman to stand up and let his/her voice be heard. Now is also the time to make your voice heard. We are 11 days from a general election, momentous events are happening and not one would-be Coalition Leader or would-be Prime Minister has the vision to address the following world issues….

Murder in the Med.

More than 1,700 people have died in the Mediterranean so far this year: i.e. 14 people a day. The decision to scale back the search and rescue programme in November 2014 in the belief that if rescue was unlikely, attempts to reach mainland Europe by sea would dry up was at best misguided.   At worst it was cruel and recklessly experimental.  People fleeing for their lives have no real choice but to risk death at sea if they face almost certain death at home. To turn one’s back on such people is inhumane, immoral, shaming and a scandal. How many more people will have to die before a political leader has the courage and vision to take positive steps to rescue those in fear of death and to offer asylum to those fleeing persecution and war?

I cannot prove it, but my hunch is that the failure of leadership is a result of fear of electoral unpopularity because the electorate may confuse humanitarian rescue with a failure to control immigration. A statesman would address this issue head-on: not allow more people to drown for fear of losing votes.

What sort of a world do we want to live in? Not one that allows desperate people to drown or increases the chances of drowning in order to deter others from attempting to fleeing from war and persecution.

Open season on Christians/muslims in Middle East.

Christians are being martyred in Iraq and Syria and are fleeing in huge numbers because to remain in ISIS’s path is suicidal. Muslims too are being killed and seeking to escape.

England has so far accepted only a few hundred Syrian refugees. This is an inadequate and shameful response. Again it raises the question, what sort of world do we want to live in?


It seems as if our would-be leaders’ focus has become so myopic that the demands of common humanity have fallen out of view. It is time to correct their vision. Why not email those standing in your constituency and ask them what they will do to address these issues if you give them your vote?  You will find your candidate’s contact details via this link.


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