In 2014 a proposed law to legalise assisted dying in England and Wales failed to make it through parliament and a similar attempt the following year was resoundingly voted down in the House of Commons. This followed at least two other failed efforts to legalise some form of assisted suicide or dying in 2003 and 2009.

This week parliament is being asked to consider the issue again as Baroness Meacher, who also serves as chair of campaign group Dignity in Dying, formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, brings a private members’ bill in the House of Lords.

The Sunday Times wrote in its editorial last weekend that this isn’t an issue that can be swept under the carpet. But that certainly is not what has happened to this topic. It is unlikely that a full debate on the proposals will take place before the autumn and there are significant procedural hurdles for the proposals to clear if they are to become law on this occasion. But if parliament considering and decisively opposing proposals four times in two decades is ignoring an issue, I wonder what it might look like to give it its full attention. 

The 2014 bill, which the new attempt will closely mirror, proposed it would not be illegal to permit a medical professional to assist someone to die at a time of their choosing if they have a terminal illness and two doctors agree they are of sound mind and will likely die within six months. The bill included a number of other clauses including the option for the person to revoke the declaration at any time (presumably the drafters did not mean at any time unless they have a particularly active understanding of bodily resurrection). 


In the coming months we will address the proposals directly and provide resources to enable you to have your voice heard. Underpinning our work will be our commitment to promote and protect the inherent dignity of every human being. But at this stage let me offer two preliminary comments: first on language and second on how we should speak out on controversial proposals such as this. 

Language is more fluid than structured. The more you try and cut it down and change its shape the more it morphs and melds its way in rampant form. Campaigners no longer press for euthanasia, which is understood as the intentional ending of another’s life to relieve pain and suffering. Focus has shifted to assisted suicide, when the action is owned by the person suffering but another can assist without shouldering the responsibility. Assisted dying moves the conversation further: it aims to hasten the death that is assumed to be already underway, not just help someone take their own life for any reason of their choice. 

The policy proposals for each of the three concepts (euthanasia, assisted suicide, assisted dying) are different and it is vital that they are considered on the specifics of what is being outlined. But it is also crucial to see what the bill does and does not include and the relationship between the categories. 

Some supporters of assisted suicide legislation oppose the approach Baroness Meacher is proposing because it does not cover those who are not terminally ill but are suffering. It does not include, for example, those with lifelong conditions that are not terminal. These campaigners would like new laws to cover a wider range of categories. International evidence shows the pressure to widen the categories include measures to encompass mental as well as physical health matters. And let’s not ignore the name change from the unpalatable Voluntary Euthanasia Society to the more empathetic Dignity in Dying. Warnings of a slippery slope are not scaremongering; they are making people aware that the slope is slippery and only goes one way. 

We all have a responsibility to understand the proposals and the risks they entail and consider how best to respond. There are two broad categories of approach that can work well together. First, the proposals need to be scrutinised for how they will work and the inherent risks, including the risk of abuse and the threat to vulnerable people. The proposals could certainly be strengthened to introduce further safeguards and protections. 

However, such an approach on its own may suggest that this type of legislation is fixable. It is not. Laws that introduce any form of assisted dying, suicide or euthanasia fundamentally undermine both the medical profession’s duty of care and, of greater concern, what it means to promote and protect human dignity. 

Legislation should be opposed both on the risks that it creates to vulnerable people and on the fundamental moral principle to protect life. This is not an exclusive religious concern and should not be dismissed as such. While as a Christian what I believe shapes my moral framework on the importance of life, I have shared objectives with those with different worldviews and beliefs who equally value life. 

Calls for assisted dying to be legalised are one step along the road of an aggressive concept of individual autonomy that has lost its anchor of what it means to be human. This legislation will permit what a person can do at the expense of who they are. Radical individuality leads to the contradictions built into these proposals – how else could you explain the drafters including a clause that allows the person granting the declaration permitting assisted dying to revoke it at any time. The lack of self-awareness is remarkable. There are all sorts of ways that our choices are bound, not least by the finitude of our bodies. Individual autonomy is an insufficient basis for such significant moral decisions. 

As author James Mumford wrote when such proposals were previously considered: Liberalism as a philosophy has always insisted upon exit routes. You shouldn’t be able to sell yourself into perpetual slavery, even if you do so freely, because you can’t reverse that decision. Euthanasia, failing that test, is therefore illiberal.”

In the coming months we will hear more about these proposals and the immense suffering that people endure. Our care and compassion must continue to motivate us to provide the best support to people in their final days, rather than undermine their place in our society. We will speak with clarity into the specifics of what is proposed and the risk that is posed, we will pray for those affected and for those considering these issues, and we will champion a vision of what it means to truly value human life.