THE BLOG

Assisted Dying and Religion

03/07/2014 12:39 BST | Updated 02/09/2014 10:59 BST

One of the most senior doctors in the Country - Professor John Ashton - has called for doctors to be allowed to help terminally ill patients end their lives. He wants doctors (or a new type of mid-wife) to be able to give patients a lethal dose of drugs to help end their suffering without risking prosecution - in other words he wants 'assisted dying'.

Like many other people I have watched a close relative experience a slow and undignified death from cancer and I support the idea of the patient having the option to ask for a lethal dose of drugs to end that suffering - at least that is what I would like to have as an option should I find myself in that position. It has often been argued that we would not accept dogs being left to suffer in this way so why tolerate it for humans?

This is a complex debate - patients might be vulnerable where relatives put pressure on them to end their lives or where the patient feels they are a burden. Patients might be suffering from depression and may not be thinking properly and objectively. In addition - it is not something which should be imposed on doctors without considering the enormous burden they would carry on behalf of the rest of the community if we expect them to carry this out. All these issues must be considered and more besides and there are plenty of reasonable arguments against assisted dying - but we should debate it.

Of course a number of people argue from the position of a religious belief - some explicitly so - others I suspect not so explicitly.

Andrea Williams, the chief executive of the Christian lobby group Christian Concern argues against assisted dying from an explicitly religious basis. She was quoted in the Guardian recently. "To say that it's care for a doctor to kill is ... a complete denial of their Hippocratic oath," she said. "A doctor is there to care for the patient, not to kill the patient. Midwives joyfully bring life into the world. It's not a doctor's place to play God at the end of life."

I am not religious - I don't believe in any gods or an afterlife and I have to say I don't want to suffer a slow and lingering death simply because someone else happens to believe in something for which there is no credible evidence.

She is right to say that it is not an accepted or recognised part of a doctor's duty to help end someone's life - although I suspect some already do. But it is possible that after much necessary debate and with safeguards in place it could become part of their role - if not them then someone's role - to help end people's suffering.

Andrea Williams follows a particular religion - one of many in the world and one of many different ones through history - as far as I can see it has no greater validity than any of the others.

I would not want to suffer an unnecessarily long and lingering death simply because we want to avoid doctors "playing god" - a being for whose existence we have no evidence and we should be wary of people who apparently argue for fewer choices for fellow citizens on the authority of a god.

Many religious people do many good things motivated by their religion - or perhaps simply because they are nice people and would do these things anyway. People should be free to believe in what they like and that is normally none of my business.

However it becomes my business when it might affect how I end my life - on how much suffering I might have to endure should I become terminally ill. At that point I think people should have to prove their case to a reasonable standard and they should not be able to claim the authority of religion without a counter argument.

There are 26 Church of England Bishops in the House of Lords - there as a right. They are part of the system that makes and shapes our laws and effect how we live our lives. No other religion has that privilege and that amount of influence. The argument from religious authority is a powerful one and it is likely to shape debate and outcomes on these sorts of important topics but I don't see why it should go unchallenged.

I doubt Andrea Williams represents the views of most religious people - any more than my views represent those of many non-religious people but if we must linger and suffer at the end of our lives then I hope it is because we argued and decided on secular values and trusted ourselves to make the right judgment without referring to a god or to people claiming to represent the views of a god.