The past few weeks have been truly momentous for those of us on the long struggle for an end to unnecessary suffering and todays debate on Lord Falconer's bill for assisted dying marks an important milestone in this journey.
Several very senior figures in the Anglican community have broken through the stifling orthodoxy of the Church's teaching on the sanctity of life to advocate significant reform around assisted dying. Desmond Tutu and the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, both admitted last week that the Church's central message of compassion is not served by the prolongation of needless suffering. The Supreme Court, meanwhile, ruled in the right to die cases we were supporting, that would not be incompatible with human rights for Parliament to make assisted dying legal. These interventions have given new urgency to legislation being piloted through parliament by Lord Falconer, which would importantly change the law around assisted dying.
It is clear that a stirring groundswell of momentum is currently spurring the campaign to reform our archaic position on these fundamental matters. Various religious 'leaders' and lobbies are rallying to disparage the proposals as they have done for earlier attempts at reform. The prime minister is 'not convinced that further steps need to be taken'. It seems that the PM is out of step with the 81% of the general public who support a change in the law, as do 70% of religious believers. When a mentally competent adult is suffering incurably, is permanently incapacitated, and has made a clear and informed decision to end their life but is unable to do so independently, simple compassion calls out to us to give assistance - it's the right thing to do.
The Supreme Court did not recently exercise the authority it could have because it views elected officials as the foremost legitimate arbiters of such a tangled moral question. And whilst it urged parliamentary decisiveness on the issue, we are clearly seeing that any legislative progress on assisted dying will remain tortuous and incremental.
The British Humanist Association supports Lord Falconer's bill because, in reality, progress more often than not means inching painstakingly along the roots and branches of reform. Falconer's bill will alleviate the suffering of thousands of people nationwide by respecting their right to freedom of choice. We are clear, however, that in covering only those who are entering the last six months of their lives, this bill continues to restrict the rights of many more people who suffer just as much, but are 'merely' irrevocably ill. It is therefore a courageous first step, but one which does not go far enough.
Falconer's bill would not have helped Tony Nicklinson- whose plight led to Lord Carey's u-turn on the right to die- who died in pain from pneumonia after a wretched and long battle against locked-in syndrome. It will not help Paul Lamb, who is paralysed from the neck down but will not qualify for assistance in ending his life on the arbitrary grounds that his debilitating condition happens not to be terminal. It is obviously important that any law on assisted dying is safeguarded from abuse. Concerns that the incurably sick might feel pressured into taking their own lives- concerns which can rightly be addresses by stringent safeguards- however, clearly do not apply in the case of these two brave men, who were so sure of what they wanted that they were prepared to fight a long and arduous court battle to get it.
The pious claim of those on the religious right that they are the true defenders of the sanctity of life is a gross perversion of this debate. Humanists and many others believe that life is the source of great joy and therefore incomparably precious. It is precisely for this reason that every human being should have unconditional autonomy over their right to life; a right which is clearly contravened when those who are suffering but physically incapable of self-administering suicide cannot have others help them for fear of prosecution. If a mentally competent person decides that an important part of their life's meaning is dignity and freedom from unnecessary and irrevocable pain, then who are we to tell them otherwise?
Two thirds of the British public agree with us that any meaningful right to life entails the right to choose how we die. We commend Lord Falconer's bill for recognising this. It's a step in the right direction.