Former Anglican Archbishop of South Africa Desmond Tutu has controversially said he would support euthanasia for the terminally ill. Writing in The Observer this week he said he reveres “the sanctity of life but not at any cost”.

He implied that prolonging the life of his friend Nelson Mandela had not allowed Nelson dignity in dying. He described keeping Nelson Mandela alive with intensive care while being photographed with visiting world-known politicians as “disgraceful”, adding “You could see Madiba [Nelson Mandela] was not fully there. He did not speak. He was not connecting. My friend was no longer himself. It was an affront to Madiba’s dignity”. tutu

This comes after the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey saying that he would reject his opposition to Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill and support assisted dying for the terminally ill. His explanation for his dramatic change of heart was that “The old philosophical certainties have collapsed in the face of the reality of needless suffering”. However, the Church of England are launching an enquiry into the issue, and has caused uncomfortable ripples within the Church. The matter was discussed in the House of Lords yesterday, poignantly on Mandela Day, which would have been the former South African president’s 96th birthday.lc

Tutu said;

“I think a lot of people would be upset if I said I wanted assisted dying. I would say I wouldn’t mind actually…I think when you need machines to help you breathe, then you have to ask questions about the quality of life being experienced and about the way money is being spent. I have been fortunate to spend my life working for dignity for the living. Now I wish to apply my mind to the issue of dignity for the dying. I revere the sanctity of life – but not at any cost.”

The 1961 Suicide Act makes it an offence to encourage or assist a suicide or a suicide attempt in England, Wales and almost the same Northern Ireland. Breaking this law can result in imprisonment for 14 years. There is no law on assisted suicide in Scotland, although in theory could lead to prosecution under homicide legislation, so there is some ambiguity.

There have already been several attempts to legalise voluntary euthanasia, but these have been rejected. Those in the medical profession who have to adhere to a Hippocratic Oath, disability rights groups as well as many other groups argue that the law should remain as it is, as if implemented it could lead to a dangerous slippery slope whereby the most vulnerable in society may not be safeguarded. The current Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby agrees, regarding the Assisted Dying Bill as “mistaken and dangerous”. However, in 2012 The Commission on Assisted Dying, established by campaigners calling for a change in the law, concluded that there was a “strong case” for allowing assisted suicide for people who are terminally ill in England and Wales.

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In other European countries such as Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, legislation has been introduced to allow voluntary euthanasia. France, similarly to the UK, is also considering introducing similar legislation, although there is opposition from its medical ethics council.

Boris Johnson also reacted to Lord Carey’s U-turn this week, and while he pointed out many flaws in allowing assisted dying that need to be considered, the Conservative Mayor of London, seemingly supported Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill to a certain extent, writing in The Telegraph;

“This Bill has wide support from a British public that by now has ample personal experience of those whose lives have been prolonged, by modern medicine, beyond their ability to endure; and the law must move with people’s needs… If we are going to take this step, we should make it a small one, and see how it goes. I would like to see the Falconer Bill apply not to all those who might well die in the next six months, but only to those whose lives are overwhelmingly likely to be very near the end”.bj

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  • Philip Adler
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    “Those in the medical profession who have to adhere to a Hippocratic Oath, disability rights groups as well as many other groups argue that the law should remain as it is, as if implemented it could lead to a dangerous slippery slope whereby the most vulnerable in society may not be safeguarded. ”

    This requires clarification- which disability rights groups? Which other groups? Can you link to any evidence to support this statement that these groups have made these criticisms?

    I should also point out that (as I have understood it from my conversations with medical professionals on the subject) in the UK, no doctor has any obligation to follow a Hippocratic oath- though they do have to adhere to standards laid down by the GMC, so I am not sure if you mean this in the sense of “those who have opted to take a hippocratic oath” or if you believe that all doctors still take this oath.

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