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On Assisted Dying, The Public Is Wiser And More Compassionate Than The Law


'The public is wiser and more compassionate than the law.' In The Times's Thunderer column Lucy Wainwright came to this conclusion in response to the fact that Noel Conway, who has Motor Neurone Disease, lost his fight to bring a judicial review of the law on assisted dying.

In America, the Oregon law change came about because they have a route via a popular ballot initiative which allows for the moral consensus of a community to be reflected in legislation. This is not the case here. The only way we will get a more compassionate law is for parliament to enact it.

This provokes very interesting questions about the nature of the relationship between the State and the moral consciousness of a nation. Two years ago Dignity in Dying's Populus poll found that 82% of people supported Lord Falconer's proposed change in the law. The opposition was vanishingly small with only 6% saying that they would strongly oppose such a move.

Lord Falconer's bill passed easily in the Lords. You could argue, given the age profile of this house, that the issue was more practical and less theoretical than in the other house. However, I heard some of the pre-debate, and the strongest feelings in favour were about the sheer milk of human kindness and the extraordinary stealing of personal autonomy at the point of dying. The religious voice from the Bishops was profoundly and intractably against any change, but failed to sway the Lords.

An election intervened meaning that the Falconer Bill fell over, but rose from the ashes in the shape of the virtually identical Marris Bill. The Bill was heavily lost in the Commons. In many ways this was extraordinary. The Populus Poll has suggested that there was considerable electoral advantage to be gained by supporting assisted dying. They had asked which attributes, from a list of 20 (positive, negative & neutral) words & phrases, were most associated with MPs either backing or opposing assisted dying. MPs who backed a change in the law were identified as being "compassionate", "caring", "in-touch", and "progressive" while MPs who stood against it were "lacking compassion", "out of touch" and "backward-looking".

What was going on? How did the substantial moral change around homosexuality in the country get reflected in our legislation, with equal marriage now part of our culture, and yet an even higher proportion of people long for new assisted dying legislation and Parliament resists?

I suspect that it is because, despite many carefully honed arguments, such decisions are made at a profoundly gut level. It is at that level that the change has happened with homosexuality. Apart from in a few niche religious communities that historic 'yuck' factor no longer exists. Being gay is no big deal.

Death is altogether another matter. "Americans are death-phobic and grief-illiterate," Coombs Lee said, citing a Canadian spiritual writer named Stephen Jenkinson. Well, so are we here in Britain. In my job as a local vicar, I visit people in hospital. As I go in a relative will quite often say to me: 'We know she is dying, but she doesn't -please don't mention it.' Then I go to the bedside and she says: 'I know I'm dying but my family don't. Please don't mention it.' So they miss some of the deepest moments in life.

Our inability to get ourselves a good and compassionate assisted dying law is therefore probably just a symptom of a deeper malaise about our relationship with death itself. Our politicians were being asked to talk through something they'd rather not mention, and then move from the notion of assisted dying which clearly has public support, to the reality enshrined in law. This was clearly, for them, a step too far. It will not always be so. There are signs that we as a society are developing more enriched conversations about death and this will allow assisted dying to take it's small place in a whole scheme of better ways of dying.

Meanwhile we are stuck in a very weird moral place. I feel it acutely as a Christian, where the articulated position from the senior staff seems to be that we are prepared to tolerate real and actual suffering of another person at the end of life on behalf of our own ethical sensibilities. As in the State so in the Church. Most regular Christians don't feel that way at all. The gap between the leadership and the people is overwhelming and history teaches us that such a gap is unsustainable. It must and will change. At the moment Lucy Wainwright is correct. 'The public is wiser and more compassionate than the law.'

Canon Rosie Harper is speaking on the panel "Separation of Powers: God in Politics" at Southbank Centre's Belief and Beyond Belief Festival on Saturday 8 April.

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