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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In focusing on the famous few, we risk doing a disservice to all victims of child sexual abuse

There is a danger that we make it harder, not easier, for victims to come forward in future. 

Back in the 1970s when relations between journalists and police were somewhat different to today a simple ritual would be carried out around the country at various times throughout the week.

Reporters, eager for information for their regional newspaper, would take a trip to the local station and there would be met by a desk sergeant who would helpfully skim through details in the crime Incident Book.

Among the entries about petty thefts, burglaries and road accidents there would occasionally be a reference to an allegation of incest. And at this point the sergeant and journalist might well screw-up their faces, shake their heads and swiftly move on to the next log. The subject was basically taboo, seen as something ‘a bit mucky,’ not what was wanted in a family newspaper.

And that’s really the way things stayed until 1986 when ChildLine was set up by Dame Esther Rantzen in the wake of a BBC programme about child abuse. For the first time children felt able to speak out about being sexually assaulted by the very adults whose role in life was to protect them.

And for the first time the picture became clear about what incest really meant in many cases. It wasn’t simply a low level crime to be swept under the carpet in case it scratched people’s sensitivities. It frequently involved children being abused by members of their close family, repeatedly, over many years.

Slowly but surely as the years rolled on the NSPCC continued to press the message about the prevalence of child sexual abuse, while encouraging victims to come forward. During this time the corrosive effects of this most insidious crime have been painfully detailed by many of those whose lives have been derailed by it. And of course the details of the hundreds of opportunistic sexual assaults committed by Jimmy Savile have been indelibly branded onto the nation’s consciousness.

It’s been a long road - particularly for those who were raped or otherwise abused as children and are now well into their later years - to bring society around to accepting that this is not to be treated as a dark secret that we really don’t want to expose to daylight. Many of those who called our helpline during the early days of the Savile investigation had never told anyone about the traumatic events of their childhoods despite the fact they had reached retirement age.

So, having buried the taboo, we seem to be in danger of giving it the kiss of life with the way some cases of alleged abuse are now being perceived.

It’s quite right that all claims of sexual assault should be investigated, tested and, where there is a case, pursued through the judicial system. No one is above the law, whether a ‘celebrity’ or a lord.

But we seem to have lost a sense of perspective when it comes to these crimes with vast resources being allocated to a handful of cases while many thousands of reported incidents are virtually on hold.

The police should never have to apologise for investigating crimes and following leads. However, if allegations are false or cannot be substantiated they should say so. This would be a strength not a weakness.

It is, of course, difficult that in many of the high-profile cases of recent times the identities of those under investigation have not been officially released by the police but have come to light through other means. Yet we have to deal with the world as it is not as we wish it would be and once names are common knowledge the results of the investigations centring on them should be made public.

When it emerges that someone in the public eye is being investigated for non-recent child abuse it obviously stirs the interest of the media whose appetite can be insatiable. This puts pressure on the police who don’t want to repeat the mistakes of the past by allowing offenders to slip through their hands.  And so there is a danger, as has been seen in recent cases, that officers lack confidence in declaring there is a lack of evidence or the allegations are not true. 

The disproportionate weight of media attention given to say, Sir Edward Heath, as opposed to the Bradford grooming gang sentenced this week, shows there is a danger the pendulum is swinging too far the other way. This threatens the painstaking work invested in ensuring the public and our institutions recognise child abuse as a very real danger. 

Whilst high profile cases have helped the cause there is now a real risk that the all-encompassing focus on them does both victims of abuse and those advocating on their behalf a fundamental disservice.

As the public watches high -profile cases collapsing amidst a media fanfare genuine convictions made across the country week in week out go virtually unannounced. If this trend continues they may start to believe that child sexual abuse isn’t the prolific problem we know it to be.

So, while detectives peer into the mists of time, searching for long lost clues, we have to face the unpalatable possibility that offences being committed today will in turn only be investigated fully in years or decades' time because there is not the manpower to deal with them right now.

So, now the Goddard Inquiry is in full swing, taking evidence about allegations of child sex crimes involving ‘well known people’ as well as institutional abuse, how do we ensure we don’t fail today’s victims?

If they start to think their stories are going to be diminished by the continuing furore over how some senior public figures have been treated by the police they will stay silent. Therefore we have to continue to encourage them to come forward, to give them the confidence of knowing they will be listened to.

If we don’t we will find ourselves back in those incestuous days where people conspired to say and do nothing to prevent child abuse.

Peter Wanless is Chief Executive of the NSPCC.