Big Debate: Assisted dying

Paul Lamb accompanied by Jane Nicklinson, widow of Tony Nicklinson and her daughter Lauren (left) at

Paul Lamb accompanied by Jane Nicklinson, widow of Tony Nicklinson and her daughter Lauren (left) at the High Court in London where theye will continue their right-to-die legal action started by locked-in syndrome sufferer Tony Nicklinson. - Credit: PA Wire/Press Association Images

Rev Rob Marshall, Team Rector of East Ham vs Paul Kaufman, Chair of the East London Humanists

Rev Rob Marshall

Rev Rob Marshall - Credit: Archant

Labour peer Lord Falconer is to table a bill this year calling for a change in the law on assisted dying – allowing a chosen individual to help a person who is terminally ill or trapped in a life-limiting condition to end their life without fear of prosecution.

Paul Kaufman

Paul Kaufman - Credit: Archant

Assisted suicide is currently illegal but Lord Falconer thinks the law needs to “catch up” with public opinion.

The House of Lords has already rejected such legislation in 2006 and 2009 while doctors’ groups and the Church of England remain opposed.

Here to debate the issue is Paul Kaufman, chair of East London Humanists, part of the British Humanist Association, which supports an appeal in the High Court by Paul Lamb and Jane Nicklinson over assisted suicide.

Opposing the idea is the newly-appointed Team Rector of East Ham, Rev Rob Marshall, who is a Church of England vicar and a regular contributor to Thought for the Day on BBC Radio Four.

Rev Rob Marshall, Team Rector of East Ham

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Who would make this decision and what would be the determining factors? That’s the nub of the ethical whirlpool in which the assisted dying debate takes place.

Suffering and consequent pain is a burden which humanity has to bear. We ultimately look to salvation elsewhere.

But the journey from suffering to eternal rest and the point at which one ends and the other begins is usually regarded as being part of God’s plan. The great book of Ecclesiastes suggests that there is a time in life of everything...including a time to die.

But some people bear more than their fair share of suffering. Case studies, of course, exist. There are some people who see nothing to live for and who want to plan their exit from this life both peacefully and carefully.

Of course, I understand this. Wouldn’t I, faced with a quality of life which was a contradiction in itself want the same? To be honest, I probably would.

But here is the ethical dilemma – at some point in the conscious process to end another person’s life someone has to take responsibility for it. It cannot just be left to the person concerned for obvious reasons. Medical advice must be heard.

What one person endures, for instance, another person feels they can’t.

It is up to the rest of us to check that this really is the right decision, going contrary to nature where the time for everything is clearly laid out.

Would you want to make that decision for someone else? What if? How do you really know?

And while, in the most extreme circumstances, the termination of a life might seem logical and an act of deliverance, once people see it as their right for other reasons – particularly those wrestling with depression and other mental health issues – we go into foreboding territory.

Paul Kaufman, Chair of the East London Humanists

Imagine, if you can, the last tormented months of Tony Nicklinson.

He was an intelligent man and had led an active life. He then became completely paralysed and could only communicate through eye movements.

He made a rational decision that he wanted to end his own life. His awful condition meant he was powerless to do it himself.

Last year the High Court refused Tony’s plea for assistance. In his despair, he refused food.

He died on August 18, just six days after the judgement. A posthumous appeal by his wife is currently being considered by the Court of Appeal.

This is one of three similar appeals supported by the British Humanist Association.

Humanists argue that the right to die, with dignity, in a manner of our own choosing, is a fundamental human right.

It is consistent with our obligation to alleviate suffering where we can. We believe it is the right of mentally competent adults to make decisions about their own lives as long as this causes no harm to others.

Critics warn of creating a brutal society where people are pressured into taking their own lives. Of course, any law must include stringent safeguards.

In fact the nightmare predictions have not been borne out by the experience of several jurisdictions.

These include the US states of Oregon and Washington, which passed a Death with Dignity Act years ago.

The strongest objections to assisted dying are usually rooted in religious belief. Such views run counter to a recent poll which shows more than 80 per cent support assisted dying.

Why should the religious be able to tell those who do not share their faith how we should live or how we should die? And what answer do they have to the plight of Tony Nicklinson and others like him?