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Former Archbishops set out opposing views on assisted suicide

by Donna Birrell

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, has strongly denounced assisted suicide just days after his predecessor, Lord Carey, reiterated his support for the practice.

In a statement submitted to the British Medical Journal, Lord Williams of Oystermouth warned medics that a change in the law would lead to “overstrained families” and “overstretched medical resources” exerting pressure on many patients to take their lives by assisted suicide. 

He questioned whether the progress and provision of palliative care in the UK could survive “overburdened budgets” when enabling the suicides of people who required nursing and hospice care became the cheaper option. 

His position directly contradicts that expressed by Lord Carey of Clifton, also a former Archbishop of Canterbury, who last week reaffirmed his support for assisted suicide, and declared in an article in BMJ that there is “nothing holy about agony”. He said letting terminally ill patients die 'as well as possible' is a 'compassionate and religious' approach and better than making them suffer.

Lord Williams said: “We have to be aware of the reality of pressure on seriously ill patients to take certain decisions … which may very understandably come from overstrained families as well as overstretched medical systems. We should note that fear of such pressure within the medical system may discourage seriously ill patients from seeking appropriate medical help; the issues of doctor-patient trust involved are real.” 

“This country currently has an enviable record of progress in and provision for palliative care. Will this survive in the world of overburdened budgets if there are less expensive options?” 

The comments of both Lord Williams, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002-2012, and Lord Carey, who was in office from 1991-2002, follow the introduction into Parliament of the third Bill in six years aimed at decriminalising assisted suicide in England and Wales. 

The British Medical Association will debate proposals to abandon its traditional opposition to assisted suicide in favour of a position of neutrality on Tuesday 14th September. 

The Assisted Dying Bill is scheduled to receive its Second Reading in the House of Lords on October 22nd.


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