Lord Carey is wrong (and not for the first time)

The ability of Lord Carey to dominate the headlines during the synod of the Church of England is something that is a wonder of modern ecclesiastical communications. If I were working in the communications machine of the C of E, I’d despair of the former archbishop’s ability to step into the limelight just when one would be trying to get some kind of coherent message across.

Lord Carey makes me feel sympathy for the Church of England, its synod and its communication team. Such is his impact. He is not to be underestimated.

So, what are we to make of his statement that he is now in favour of Assisted Suicide, having been against it previously?

I’ve not written much about this topic. It is a sensitive one and one which divides people in unpredictable ways. Working in the church, you kind of get used to the way we divide on many issues. (Those who are most antagonistic to women clergy are often the most antagonistic to gay men living lives of openness etc). However in this case, I think that we divide differently and unpredictably.

I’m not persuaded by Lord Carey’s argument and don’t favour any change to the law.

I’m familiar with the argument that we must do all we can to eliminate suffering and that sometimes life has just become intolerable. I have every sympathy with those who have seen someone die in pain and distress and would do anything to have made it easier. Of course I would.

But I am also aware that people don’t die in a neat predictable way. Nor do they die isolated from the values and needs of those who are left behind. The relationship between those whose life is coming to an end is inevitably bound up with the lives of those who seek to care for them and those who perhaps should care for them but who don’t find themselves able to do so.

Offering the choice to die inevitably puts new burdens on those who are dying as well as on those who are around them. I’m unpersuaded at this time that it is in the best interests of society as a whole for the moral right of one individual within that complex of relationships to automatically trump every other consideration.

Now that’s a hard position for me to take because of two things. Firstly, I believe that we should seek to relieve suffering and act to reduce pain. I don’t believe that there is anything good about pain and unlike many religious people I think that it has no redemptive quality at all. Secondly because I think we need to give as much autonomy to the individual as we can.

How can I come to the view that I do then that Lord Carey is wrong?

Well, it isn’t just the dying person who suffers pain at the time of a death.  Nor is all pain caused by purely physical causes. I’m simply unpersuaded on pragmatic grounds that allowing Assisted Suicide will lead to an overall reduction in pain to humanity. Secondly, I don’t believe that a patient has absolute autonomy if there is an economic or emotional factor in their dying that can benefit others. When people die these things are all around.

My objection to Assisted Suicide is not a particularly religious one. At least I don’t think so.

The only religious reason that I can think of which supports my position is that I think it is incumbent on the Christian to care for the vulnerable. The dying are incredibly vulnerable. They are vulnerable to those who would like them to get on with it. Those can be relatives but equally they can be doctors and health service managers too.

I can’t see any protections that could remove that vulnerability.

The reality is, not everyone dies in a middle class way with articulate, caring people around them who stand to gain nothing from their death.

For these practical, emotional and probably inconsistent reasons, I can’t support a change in the law.

Though I know many good people who will agree with him, I have to admit that, not for the first time, I think Lord Carey is wrong.


  1. I have mixed feelings on this law. Sometimes the suffering is so terrible and the burden so great- I think it is something we can offer. (we do that much for our animal companions) – and sometimes I am persuaded by your arguments. We have this law here in Oregon. Killing off the vulnerable is still murder.

  2. I agree with your helpful assessment that this is a complex issue.
    When my own mother had a stroke over a decade ago it was quite awful. I felt my views about euthanasia change overnight.
    Our observation of her pain was tangibly hurting us. I wanted her to be spared that.
    But I came to the conclusion after the 5 years which followed before her ‘natural death’…that I was wrong. She lived life, albeit in a diminished way(…but maybe everyone’s life has a diminishment about it) very fully. With a caring family, in a modest institution which provided for her needs.
    In particular my sister observed after her death about her two grandchildren, my mother’s first two Great-grandchildren “Of course they never knew Nana in any other way…and just accepted her for what she was” I have always thought this was a profound insight

  3. Shona Maciver says

    I agree with this and I have been through endless days with someone whom it would break your heart to glance at, never mind care for. Yet it was only at the very last that he wished to go. He remained as long as he could bear it. For what? For love.

  4. Katherine says

    I watched my mother take her last breath – literally – in the small hours of the morning of the 17th of July. In the previous nights of my nursing her I learned that it was her anxiety that required relief even more than her pain, and I am so grateful that I didn’t have to calm her from fearing someone would kill her, legally, against her will. She feared home hospice care for that very reason and only my presence and the persuasion of our vicar helped her overcome that fear. She and I were protected by the absence of a legal form of asisted dying, at least.

    What’s worse is that my father, who has early-stage dementia, paranoia, and very good accommodating skills, would have had her persuaded that assisted dying was in everyone’s best interest, and he would have had her dead in a trice. Thankfully that avenue for mischief-making and destruction was closed to him. The damage that could have been done – given what the family is suffering already – is unbearable to consider.

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