Assisted dying isn't contested on religious grounds - it's about power, paternalism and control

A recent YouGov poll has shown that a majority of people - from almost all religious denominations - support doctor-assisted dying. It is our secular and spiritual leaders who are refusing to catch up.

Something striking is going on when the British Humanist Association articulates the instincts of religious believers better than their own spiritual leaders manage to do.

Yesterday the national debate on assisted dying reached the Court of Appeal. Paul Lamb, who was almost completely paralysed in a car accident, another man identified only as Martin and the widow of locked-in syndrome sufferer Tony Nicklinson, whose case hit the headlines last year, are arguing that doctors should be allowed to assist mentally competent patients to end their own lives.  As the law stands, such a doctor (or a relative) risks being charged with murder and the mandatory life sentence that follows conviction.  Some indication of the importance being attached to this case may be gleaned from the fact that the Lord Chief Justice and the Master of the Rolls - the most senior judges in the land - are both hearing it.

The appellants have high-powered support for their arguments: the British Humanist Association, which has intervened in the case, has assembled evidence from leading philosophers including Simon Blackburn and AC Grayling. They also have public opinion on their side.  A recent YouGov poll, commissioned by the organisers of the Westminster Faith Debate series, showed support for a change in the law now runs at 70 per cent.

Lord Judge was a bit sniffy about these figures yesterday.  The law can't be decided on the basis of opinion polls, he said and in any case, "the public may change its mind next week."  He's right about the legal principles, of course.  In a society that claims to be democratic, however, it seems rather paternalistic to ignore the clear views of the public on a matter that touches so deeply on individual rights.  But public opinion seems unlikely to change next week, or next year.  The most recent polling confirms what has been a consistent trend, as shown for example in the British Social Attitudes Survey

This is one case in which elitist moral philosophers, cogitating in their ivory towers, seem to be at tune with public opinion far more religious leaders, the majority of whom (though not all) continue to oppose any change.  It's an opposition not shared, it seems, by most of their congregations.  The YouGov showed unequivocally that the majority of people who associated themselves with a religion supported assisted dying.  This included 71 per cent of Anglicans (almost exactly the same as among the population as a whole), more than 60 per cent of Methodists and Presbyterians, 69 per cent of Jews and even 56 per cent of Roman Catholics.  Among Sikhs, support was as high as 73 per cent.  Only Muslims showed a majority against the proposed changes - 55 per cent.  It's true that support for assisted dying was lower among people who described themselves as "active participants" in their faiths, but even here support for a change in the law to allow assisted dying tended to be greater than opposition.

In other words, the most significant divide in this debate is not between the religious and the secular, but between public opinion as a whole and those in positions of power and authority, who tend to take a strongly paternalistic (indeed patronising) line.  However important it is to protect the vulnerable, it is surely equally important to uphold the right of people who are fully competent to decide their own destiny. 

Death comes to us all, and any one of us might find ourselves in the terrible position faced by Tony Nicklinson or Paul Lamb.  Faced with an inevitable and painful decline, prolonged as much as alleviated by medical science, some will respond with determination to bear the suffering, either out of a wish to hang on for as long as possible, or because of their religious belief in the sanctity of life.  But others will wish to die with dignity with a minimum at a time of their choosing.  Neither choice is right or wrong; or rather the rightness or wrongness of such an individual choice is not what really matters here.  The question is rather, why should a responsible adult not be allowed to make that choice?

Certainly, most people in this country now feel this way, as the YouGov poll revealed. The most popular argument in favour of changing the law was a simple appeal to personal autonomy: "An individual has the right to choose when and how to die" (82 per cent).  The common arguments that death can be preferable to long drawn-out suffering and that those assisting a freely-chosen suicide shouldn't be put at risk of prosecution were slightly less popular.  This is significant, it seems to me, because these (rather than the principle of autonomy) are the arguments most often made when the subject of assisted dying is made in Parliament or when the subject is debated in the media. 

The paternalistic impulse to do what is best for other people is the flip-side of the most commonly-made objection to assisted dying: that if it were allowed, people would feel pressurised not to "be a burden" to their loved ones.  Both arguments are ultimately based on feelings of compassion for others rather than respect for them as autonomous moral agents.

The debate about assisted suicide is made pressing by medical advances that can now keep people alive for much longer, and in much more reduced circumstances, than would previously have been the case.  Whether or not life is a gift from God, its perpetuation is often now a gift, or a curse, from the doctors.  But I don't think that's the only reason that the subject is so contested at the present time.  Rather, it's bound up with an increasing conviction that the "right to life" is much more than a simple right to exist: it's also the "right to a life", the right to make one's own decisions as far as one is able to do, and to have one's choices respected.  And at the same time, not imposing one's moral choices on other people.  I don't think it's a coincidence that public opinion now also favours same sex marriage for those who want it.

I don't think this is evidence of an increasingly secular society so much as of an increasingly horizontal one, in which people are less willing to defer to moral authority figures when it comes to decisions that affect their own lives.  This is as true of many religious people as it is of humanists and atheists.  That's why in matters of life and death, as well as questions of lifestyle, believers may find themselves scratching their heads when listening to priestly pontifications but nodding along with AC Grayling.

Paul Lamb and Jane Nicklinson at the Royal Courts for a hearing on legalising doctor-assisted dying. Photograph: Getty Images.
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.