Bishop John Sherrington, on behalf of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, has submitted written evidence to the Health and Social Care Select Committee Inquiry into Assisted Dying/Assisted Suicide.
The Lead Bishop for Life Issues explains, in summary, that the Catholic Church opposes the legalisation of assisted suicide out of concern for the good of every person in society, the protection of this good in law, and the spiritual and pastoral care of the sick and dying. Bishop Sherrington also points out that there can be no safe or limited assisted suicide law.
“Rather than legalising assisted suicide, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales strongly supports greater Government investment in the availability and accessibility of specialist palliative care across the country. Care for human life should be best understood as a ‘therapeutic art.’ It integrates right relations for the patient with healthcare workers, spiritual and pastoral chaplains, relatives, and the wider community, in the context of care that, based on our recognition of the lasting love of God for all of us, protects and promotes human life until natural death.”
The evidence was submitted in January 2023. You can read an Executive Summary of the submission below or read the full text on the Select Committee’s web space.
The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales opposes the legalisation of assisted suicide out of concern for the good of every person in society, the protection of this good in law, and the spiritual and pastoral care of the sick and dying. Our opposition is a matter of human reason, as well as religious faith: assisted suicide is inherently wrong and the evidence from other jurisdictions shows there can be no safe or limited assisted suicide law.
The Catholic Church teaches that life is a gift to be cherished and cared for at all stages until natural death and that it is morally wrong to intentionally end the life of another person, including at their request.1 Clarity of language is central to effective public debate on important moral issues. The use of the term ‘assisted dying’ in this Inquiry endorses the euphemism that assisted suicide is compassionate assistance in dying rather than the prescription of lethal medication.
Arguments in support of legalising assisted suicide are based on flawed ideas of autonomy, compassion, and ‘dignity in dying’. Assisted suicide can never be an isolated act but is always deeply relational, implicating many beyond the dying person such as family, friends, and healthcare professionals.2 Appeals for assisted suicide are often based on a false view of ‘compassion’ which fails to address the reality of suffering that is part of being human.3 The Catholic Church consistently teaches that ‘human compassion consists not in causing death, but in embracing the sick, in supporting them in their difficulties, in offering them affection, attention, and the means to alleviate suffering,’ such as through nursing homes, hospices, and chaplaincy work in hospitals.4 Those who advocate for assisted suicide based on so-called ‘dignity in dying’ ultimately pass judgement on the value of human life according to its abilities rather than its inherent value.5
Legalising the intentional killing of patients would gravely undermine the vocation of healthcare professionals to care for life until its natural end. Trust between doctor and patient would be undermined by the difficulty in accurately predicting the outcome of terminal illness.6 No doctors’ groups in the UK support assisted suicide, including the British Medical Association, the Royal College of General Practitioners, and the Association for Palliative Medicine.
The legalisation of assisted suicide would likely result in the dangerous degradation of people living with disabilities, effectively reducing the value of life to its physical or psychological capabilities such that those living with disabling, terminal, or progressive conditions could easily become disillusioned with their lives to the extent that they see death as preferable.7 The dehumanising effect of assisted suicide legislation on people living with disabilities has been highlighted by the United Nations which has expressed serious concern at a growing international trend in providing access to assisted suicide largely based on having a disability.8 All major disability rights groups in the UK have opposed any change in the law on assisted suicide, including Disability Rights UK, Scope, and Not Dead Yet UK.9
Evidence from countries where assisted suicide has been legalised demonstrates that those who seek it often report a fear of burdening their loved ones with their suffering, which is particularly concerning for those who are elderly and infirm.10 The fear of being burdensome would be amplified by the current health and social care crises and cost-of-living crisis.11
Prescribing lethal medication for individuals suffering from suicidal ideation would be a grave betrayal of the public health duty to save life. Even though expressions of suicidal ideation by any other group, such as young women suffering from eating disorders, would be treated as psychological distress rather than reasonable requests for lethal medication, the psychiatric condition of those seeking assisted suicide has seldom been considered in other jurisdictions.12
The experience of other jurisdictions illustrates the slippery slope of assisted suicide legislation from hard cases to more comprehensive provision. Oregon, often referenced as a model template for mild assisted suicide legislation, now allows assisted suicide for non-terminal conditions including anorexia, arthritis, and kidney failure.13 Canada, legally and culturally very similar to England and Wales, now offers assisted suicide when death is not ‘reasonably foreseeable’.14 Belgium has expanded their provision of assisted suicide to include children.15 Any legalisation of assisted suicide for terminal illnesses in England and Wales would likely be challenged in court on discrimination grounds and extended to allow for cases of non-terminal illnesses and euthanasia in cases of difficulties in self-administering lethal medication.
Rather than legalising assisted suicide, the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales strongly supports greater Government investment in the availability and accessibility of specialist palliative care across the country.16 We reiterate the Catholic Church’s commitment to protecting and valuing life at all stages, no matter how physically or psychologically limited, and our opposition to assisted suicide as an attack on the inherent dignity of human life.
1 See V. The Teaching of the Magisterium, Letter SAMARITANUS BONUS on the care of persons in the critical and terminal phases of life, Congregation for the Doctrine of Faith, 14 July 2020 (Hereafter, SAMARITANUS BONUS 2020). See also John Paul II, EVANGELIUM VITAE on the Value and Inviolability of Human Life, 25 March 1995 at 64-67.
2 See IV. The Cultural Obstacles that Obscure the Sacred Value of Every Human Life, SAMARITANUS BONUS 2020.
3 See Pope Francis, Address to the National Federation of the Orders of Doctors and Dental Surgeons (20 September 2019).
4 See IV. The Cultural Obstacles that Obscure the Sacred Value of Every Human Life, SAMARITANUS BONUS 2020.
5 ‘Cherishing Life‘, Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, 2004 at 185.
6 APPG for Terminal Illness, ‘Six Months to Live?‘, Report of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Terminal Illness inquiry into the legal definition of terminal illness’, July 2019, page 24.
7 Assisted Dying Bill [HL]: Volume 815: debated on Friday, 22 October 2021.
8 See United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, ‘Disability is not a reason to sanction medically assisted dying – UN experts’ 25 January 2021.
9 See for example: Disability Rights UK ‘Our position on the proposed Assisted Dying Bill’, Scope UK ‘Scope concerned by the reported relaxation of assisted suicide guidance’, and Not Dead Yet UK ‘About’.
10 See for example: ‘Oregon Death with Dignity Act, 2021 Data Summary’ p13: 48.3% of those who underwent assisted suicide between 1998 and 2021 in Oregon cited fear of being a burden on the family, friends, or caregivers. Similarly, this was the case of 35.7% of those who received an assisted suicide in Canada. See ‘Third Annual Report on Medical Assistance in Dying in Canada 2021’ p26.
11 See for example: ‘One in ten UK Older people are reducing or stopping their social care or expect to do so in the coming months as they struggle with the cost of living’ Age UK, 3 November 2022.
12 See for example: ‘Third annual report on Medical Assistance in Dying in Canada 2021’ Government of Canada Table 6.3: Only 6.7% of cases of assisted suicide in Canada in 2021 involved prior referral to a psychiatrist.
13 See ‘Oregon Death with Dignity Act, 2021 Data Summary’ p14.
14 See ‘New medical assistance in dying legislation becomes law’ Department of Justice Canada 17 March 2021.
15 See ‘Belgium approves assisted suicide for minors’ DW 02/13/2014
16 In this vein, we welcome the Government’s acceptance of Baroness Finlay’s amendment to the Health and Care Act 2022, which requires integrated care boards across England to provide palliative care as a legal right for patients. See Health and Care Act 2022, s. 21.