Assisted Dying: Why Are Some Religious Leaders Against It?

08/09/2015 12:54 BST | Updated 07/09/2016 10:12 BST

Justin Welby, Archbishop of Canterbury, along with Cardinal Vincent Nichols and twenty three other religious leaders wrote to the Observer Newspaper last week - arguing against proposed new laws on assisted dying. The religions represented amongst the signatories included Muslims, Jews, Sikhs and various other Christian groups.

The new Assisted Dying Bill would allow patients thought to have no more than six months to live and who had demonstrated a "clear and settled intention" to end their lives to be prescribed a lethal dose of drugs on the authority of two doctors. It also includes extra safeguards by involving a High Court Judge.

What was most notable to me was that the letter did not present any essentially religious reasons against assisted dying. Given that the signatories were religious professionals it was an extremely odd omission.

Instead they claim the authority of experience through their pastoral duties. They claim that up to 500,000 elderly people will face pressure to end their lives should this become law - most by family members for financial reasons. Their pastoral experiences must be rather negative ones.

They also claim that palliative care is now so good that hardly anyone needs suffer any more.

Like many people I have watched a parent die slowly of an incurable disease in hospital. Even though drugs were used to reduce the pain she died of thirst and it was not a quick death.

Of course these religious men are not the only ones arguing that modern palliative care is now good enough to preclude the need to for a new law. However, some recent research by the London School of Economics suggests that the palliative care system in the UK lets down many people especially amongst the elderly and non-cancer patients.

But why no mention of any religious arguments from these people steeped in theology and presumably a firm belief in god and an afterlife? Perhaps because one of their reasons for their opposition is the perverse belief in 'noble suffering' in this life in preparation for an afterlife?

Former Arch Bishop of Canterbury - Lord Carey and another group of leaders from various faith groups made that point in a letter to the Telegraph last month arguing for a law on assisted dying - they said that there is nothing noble and sacred in people suffering. Why did they feel it necessary to make that point if they didn't suspect it was behind some religious opposition to assisted dying?

The Catholic Church, in particular, seem very keen on the idea of redemptive suffering. According to at least some Catholics - suffering is about being 'joined' to Christ that they might remit punishment for their sins. Is this why they are against anything to reduce this 'redemptive' suffering. This appears to be part of their belief systems - especially in the Christian traditions - so why wouldn't it help form their opinions.

It also appears to be used as an explanation as to why an otherwise all powerful god allows suffering on earth - it's because suffering is a good thing. If this idea does help form their opinions I can see why that didn't go in any letter to a national newspaper.

Many religious people do many good things all around the world - as do non-religious people. I am sure that these religious leaders are caring and compassionate on many topics - but I think we should be suspicious of their motives on the topic of assisted dying. These people are in positions of authority and can get media coverage for their views - these are not just private opinions - and so we are entitled to scrutinize their opinions.

Most people in the UK, including the religious, are in favour of the idea of assisted dying according to British Social Attitude surveys in 2007 and 2010. Although the idea is not well supported by Doctors - which is important of course since we would expect them to do the 'assisting' in the assisted dying.

Death is one thing we all have in common and the manner of it should be a subject for public debate and there are good arguments on either side. Everyone has a right to their opinion - especially people like doctors who would be in the middle of all this should it be made law - but some people have more of a say than others.

I suppose it comes down to this - I don't believe in any god or an afterlife and so I don't want to be deprived of an opportunity to avoid unnecessary suffering at the end of my life because someone else might think my suffering would be good thing.