Cardiff Archbishop's Letter on Death Issues

«A Real Risk That the Right to Die Would Become the Duty to Die»

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CARDIFF, Wales, MAY 30, 2003 ( Here is the text of an open letter from Archbishop Peter Smith of Cardiff to Catholic peers concerning euthanasia, assisted suicide and a bill which will be debated in the House of Lords on June 6.

The archbishop wrote it as chairman of the Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship of the Catholic bishops’ conference of England and Wales.

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I am writing to you and to other Catholic members of the House of Lords regarding the forthcoming debate on the Patient (Assisted Dying) Bill on 6th June 2003. The debate on this private members bill is an important opportunity for the House of Lords to reaffirm our society’s rejection of euthanasia and assisted suicide.

The first and foundational human right is the right to life, and the first duty of the state is to protect that right by safeguarding the lives of its citizens. Legalising euthanasia or assisted suicide would directly breach this duty because it would be legalising intentional killing. It would radically undermine the moral and legal basis of society. From a Christian perspective it directly contravenes the Gospel imperative to love and care for our neighbour.

We have to recognise that doctors can sometimes be dealing with cases which are extremely harrowing and difficult (although with expert palliative care pain now can almost always be controlled). But in asking what the law should be, we have to stand back from the immediacy of an individual case and consider the common good of society. The legal prohibition of intentional killing is a cornerstone of law and to change it would have massive social consequences.

Whilst the Bill seeks to limit the scope of assisted suicide to those reporting unbearable suffering, in fact it extends the possibility of euthanasia way beyond those with terminal illness to those with chronic physical or mental illnesses.

Many people with depression feel suicidal at times, and with love and care can be helped to come through it to find a new joy in life. Such people need love, not an overdose. Palliative care doctors describe how the demand for euthanasia among those with a terminal illness nearly always disappears when their pain is controlled, and report that very few people actually dying express an interest in euthanasia.

The wider effects of passing such a law cannot be overstated. It would radically undermine the relationship of trust between doctor and patient. Also, experience in the Netherlands has shown that once such a law is passed social attitudes start to change — older people begin to feel themselves a burden and ask whether they should end their lives to save their families the burden of caring for them, even if their families have no desire for this at all. The cost of caring for the elderly is massive, and it is inevitable that financial factors would begin to influence decisions. There is a real risk that the right to die would become the duty to die.

I can do no better than to quote the conclusion of the House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics in 1994 in rejecting euthanasia and assisted suicide:

«But individual cases cannot reasonably establish the foundation of a policy which would have such serious and widespread repercussions. Moreover dying is not only a personal or individual affair. The death of a person affects the lives of others, often in ways and to an extent which cannot be foreseen. We believe that the issue of euthanasia is one in which the interest of the individual cannot be separated from the interest of society as a whole.»

On behalf of the Catholic Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales I urge you to speak in this debate and vote against this Bill.

Yours sincerely in Christ,

Peter Smith
Archbishop of Cardiff
Chairman, Department for Christian Responsibility and Citizenship

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