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Assisted Dying - The Today Programme

Friday 12th May 2006

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster discuss their opposition to the proposed assisted dying legislation.

The Archbishop of Canterbury and the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster were interviewed together by Edward Stourton on 12 May 2006, for BBC Radio 4's Today programme. They discussed their opposition to the proposed assisted dying legislation, which was being brought before the House of Lords by Lord Joffe.  The following is a transcript.

[Introductory piece, featuring a woman with a terminal illness, explaining why she hopes the legislation will enable her to have an assisted suicide.]

Edward Stourton: It's not often that we welcome both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster into the studio here together. The presence of Dr Rowan Williams and Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor can perhaps be taken as a mark of the gravity with which they and their churches view the Assisted Dying Bill, which goes before the House of Lords today ...

There is a challenge to the position that you've adopted in what we've just heard, which I don't need formulate. It couldn't be said more eloquently than we've just heard it said. Which of you would like to address it first?

Archbishop of Canterbury: I think we've heard a very clear, courageous, and honest woman talking about her experience. But what her witness doesn't really deal with is of course the fact that people change their minds about this, and that very often we're talking not about objectively measurable unbearable pain, which is not what I heard her talking about, but about states of mind. Earlier in the programme we heard from someone else suffering from a complex of appalling medical conditions who said very explicitly she had changed her mind on this subject; that her years living with these conditions had been immensely valuable, so it's very difficult to settle this on anecdote and personal witness, however moving.

ES: Cardinal?

Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor: I've been a priest for nearly 50 years now and stood by the bedside of many people who've been terminally ill, and so my heart goes out to all those in the condition of being terminally ill, but also in great pain. But I think first of all, that one should treat the pain and not kill the patient, and it is possible in these days with palliative care, to treat the pain.

ES: She doesn't want that.

Cardinal: She doesn't want that. The fact of the matter is that treating humanely and with dignity, which a lot of people don't realise, is offered in the palliative care system; is, it seems to me, the main answer to....

ES: But that doesn't quite address the point does it? She's talking about her right to take decisions about herself, she's not just talking about the suffering that she will endure.

Cardinal: She's not only taking the right of her own decisions, she's also taking decisions for other people, for doctors, for helpers. There would come a situation where people would not only feel 'well I have a right to die'. There would be other people feeling 'I have a duty to die'. This is the danger when you start on this.

ES: Archbishop, you've said that in your joint submission, but what's the evidence for that? Why should that happen? Why should that transference from 'I have a right to die' to 'I have a duty to die' take place?

Cardinal: If you talk about rights- and legally enforceable rights, which is what we're talking about here- then of course, that carries with it as a matter of logic, corresponding duties. If someone has a right to die, they have a right to demand that the National Health Service provide them with a means to do so; that's just built in to what we're talking about. But what's interesting about this argument about the right and the freedom to die of course, is that the legislation which the House of Lords will debate today is not something which instantly gives that right in law to anybody and everybody. It attempts to guard this around with a number of qualifications. But if you accept that the principle, the argument that we're having is simply about autonomy, about people's right to decide when they die, actually that runs a great deal further than the matter that we're looking at today.

ES: Well let's talk about that, because in your joint submission when all this began, to the House of Lords, you said 'the consequences which could flow from a change in the law on voluntary euthanasia would outweigh the benefits to be gained from more rigid adherence to the notion of personal autonomy'. And I take it that what you're really saying is that the principle at stake is so important that choice, in the end, has to take second place? Aren't you therefore saying to women like Sally Mackintosh 'you've got to sacrifice your own wishes, and your own difficulties for the sake of the greater good?' And isn't that a terribly cruel thing to say to someone whose gone through what somebody like that endures?

Cardinal: This is a very hard thing to say, but the question is what the law can and can't do. And what the law can't do is to adjust itself into very, very particular circumstances of extreme need, without opening the door to a general provision, general rights, general duties. And that's the concern.

ES: But Cardinal all these things are terribly difficult cases.

Cardinal: I don't think personal choice is an absolute. If personal choice was an absolute you would have anarchy in fact, because people could do just what they like. And therefore to make a choice which says 'I want someone else to kill me' because this is what in fact this is, seems to me to be not only a personal choice affecting the person, but a personal choice affecting society. And really this is at the heart of the Bill that's before us.

ES: But we should be clear shouldn't we that you are saying to somebody like Sally Mackintosh 'you have to make this sacrifice of your personal choice because we believe that there is a greater general principle at stake'. That's what it comes down to isn't it?

Cardinal: In one sense, of course it does. That is the fundamental point. But also I think that people such as the person in the programme must realise that, within the law, she can die a humane and dignified death. Now that is important, with palliative care.

ES: You take as your starting point in both your letter to the Times today and certainly in your original submission to the House of Lords 'our belief that God himself has given to humankind the gift of life, as such it is to be revered and cherished.' What about people who don't believe he exists?

Archbishop: We begin from that principle, and that's what we have to articulate, given the convictions we have, the roles we occupy. The argument however, is not simply about philosophy here. If it's the case that we're right, that assisted dying is against the purposes of God, we would expect there to be quite a lot of practical difficulties to arise as result, that arise in the outworking. We therefore have to take the argument onto that field, to look at the difficulties outworking and ask 'Well, have we got the principles right?'

ES: But I think, Cardinal, there are a lot of people who don't accept the premise, aren't there?

Cardinal: I think the Archbishop and myself are speaking not just for people of religious faith. I think we're speaking for the common humanity and principles of a civilised society when we argue against this Bill. It's quite interesting that the majority of doctors, and that also the disability rights groups are firmly against this Bill. So it seems to me that doctors, particularly, know, whether they are religious people or not, know that the deepest heart of their vocation is to treat the patient.

ES: Except that you're fighting this, and I was quoting the point at which you start your submission, on the basis of your religious faith. And as you, Cardinal, have recognised in the past, this is a country that's becoming increasingly de-Christianised.

Cardinal: The fact of the matter is that religious faith, religion and as it were, humanity, hit each other in a very clear way, in issues like this, of life and death, of what is deeply at the heart of one's humanity. And here's where religious people seem to have not only a right to speak, but a duty to speak. But one's speaking not just as a religious person, because what religion does, it seems to me, is to evoke out of the human condition, what we believe to be deeply true. And that is so in this case.

ES: Archbishop?

Archbishop: What in fact we have is a rather remarkable consensus across a number of very diverse groups, about the practical risks of this legislation: practical, social, and in a sense, moral. What are the impacts likely upon the whole sense of our value of life? And this comes not simply from people who are, so to speak, enslaved by clerical superstition. It comes from the Royal College of Psychiatrists who are not exactly in the pay of the Church. It comes from the Disability Rights Commission, as the Cardinal has mentioned. It comes from a number of people who are very close to the hardest of practical decisions on this, who still say the cost of voting this through is disproportionately high to the benefit of certain individuals.

Cardinal: I think there will be a lot of people in this country of perhaps of no particular faith at all, who would be glad there are people speaking out for their - two things - their fear of pain, but also of their fears that they will arrive in a situation where they will feel 'I'm such a burden that I have to die'.

ES: Cardinal Cormac Murphy O'Connor, Dr Rowan Williams, thank you both very much indeed.

© Rowan Williams 2006

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