Archbishops weigh in on ‘right to die with dignity’

DOES the right to life always trump needless suffering? Anglican archbishops are lining up on opposing sides of the euthanasia debate, as the British parliament prepares to debate a bill today on whether terminally ill people should be granted the right to choose when to die.

And the moral standing of South Africa’s own Archbishop Desmond Tutu may sway the debate, after he came out in support of euthanasia and the right to die with dignity.

The current archbishop of Canterbury, the Most Reverend Justin Welby, continues to hold the traditional church line that voluntary euthanasia is morally wrong and that laws against assisted suicides should stand.

For Welby, it is a wrenching personal debate, having experienced the agonising death of his infant daughter following a car crash in 1983. He has warned that allowing assisted suicides would place a Sword of Damocles above the heads of the elderly, as they are put under pressure to end their own lives in the face of apparent abandonment by society.

His immediate predecessor, Dr Rowan Williams, has previously argued that the “right to die” would undermine the Christian position on the sanctity of life.

But another predecessor at Canterbury, Lord George Carey, this week came out in support of the bill to be debated in the House of Lords today. The proposed legislation would allow doctors to prescribe lethal dosages of medication to terminally ill and mentally alert people who wish to kill themselves.

Carey has argued that “the magnitude of suffering” which terminally ill patients experience, persuaded him to change his mind and support the bill, breaking with the church’s official position.

Tutu has weighed in on the debate, telling readers of Britain’s Observer newspaper of his own pain at seeing his friend, former president Nelson Mandela, being shown off in the last phase of his life “when Madiba was not fully there”, calling it an affront to the elder statesman’s dignity.

Tutu writes that African approaches to death and dying should be revisited, and that his own belief system reflects death as an individual’s “return to their source of life”.

Stressing that resources “should be spent on the living” and not on prolonging “a life that is ending” Tutu states: “Dying is part of life. We have to die. The Earth cannot sustain us and the millions of people that came before us. We have to make way for those who are yet to be born.”

He notes that while he reveres the sanctity of life, it could not be at any cost. Instead, he argues that South Africa’s constitution should guide changes to the law here so that “end-of-life wishes … support the dignity of the dying”.

Tutu’s support of the right to die with dignity has been welcomed by Dignity South Africa founder Sean Davison, who was jailed in New Zealand for five months for assisting his terminally ill mother to die.

Davison shot to prominence after an unpublished version of his book manuscript detailing his efforts to assist his cancer-ridden mother to die was leaked in New Zealand.

Davison pleaded not guilty to attempted murder of his mother, but guilty to assisted suicide.

“I’m guilty of doing that but I don’t believe it should be a crime. It is a crime in terms of the law but I think the law should be changed so that a person who does commit such a thing is not a criminal,” he said in an interview a year ago during a series of lectures at the National Arts Festival in Grahamstown.

Tutu, as chancellor of the University of the Western Cape, supported Davison, an academic in forensic science at the university, during his trial.

In the interview last year, Davison said Dignity SA had approached prominent black South Africans to be patrons of the organisation, saying the issue went beyond culture and race but that “parliament is 80 percent black and parliament would change the law”. While he did not name Tutu then, there were strong hints that Tutu was among those approached.

Davison has since confirmed in comments published this week that private correspondence with Tutu had shown that the archbishop supported his decision to assist in his mother's death.

Davison has argued that palliative care, which opponents of assisted dying say should be the only option for terminally ill people, is not readily available for poor people in South Africa.

A year ago, he was also hopeful that a private member’s bill – modelled on the draft being proposed today in Britain by Lord Falconer – could be presented to our parliament within a short time, proposing measures to allow assisted suicide. He has acknowledged now that getting new legislation passed here would require a groundswell of support that would only come after years of lobbying.

Such proposed legislation, he has said, would provide for independent medical reports from two doctors before a decision was taken to terminate the life of a terminally ill patient with only six months to live.

Davison was criticised during his presentation at the Grahamstown festival for glossing over his emotional state before and after feeding his mother poison, and not reflecting on the feelings of anguish and guilt experienced by one who assists a loved one to die, even when they have relief at being able to release their relative from pain and disease.

This aspect is among the many emotive issues thrown up around the debate on euthanasia.

In a South African context, the elderly and infirm are already in a vulnerable state given family relations and government policies. Their plight may be exacerbated if new laws that permit assisted suicide are introduced, even if the drafters set in place the necessary checks and balances.

The Vatican, which issued a statement ahead of today’s British parliamentary debate, picked up on that possibility, warning that euthanasia would be used as an economic measure to reduce the size of ageing populations, especially in the west.

Ray Hartle is a senior reporter at the Daily Dispatch. He can be reached on rayh@dispatch.co.za

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