Why it is time to cross the Rubicon

19 Sep 2015


On the 11th September, MPs rejected the Assisted Dying Bill – an issue that Parliament has not been voted on for some 20 years. In a free vote, MPs argued passionately on both sides. Ultimately, 330 MPs voted against the legislation, which would have allowed terminally ill adults with fewer than six months left to live to end their lives through the use of lethal drugs. Only 118 voted in favour.


In an open letter to Parliament, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby argued against the Bill, claiming that it would ‘cross a fundamental legal and ethical Rubicon’, and warning that ‘respect for the lives of others… ought not to be abandoned’. However, Welby’s view is certainly not representative of the wider population. The organisation Dignity in Dying claims that 80% of British people support the legalisation of assisted dying, whilst 79% of religious individuals would also support the move.


Indeed, contrary to the perspective of Welby, the principle that we should show ‘respect for the lives of others’ is precisely why assisted dying should be legalised in Britain. The law should not hold dominion over the bodies of those in extremis. Equally, in Parliament, a dogmatic belief in the sanctity of life should not overpower general public opinion, or the interests of those who would be directly affected by the legislation. Those trapped in the shattered prison of terminal illness should be able to possess complete autonomy over their own bodies.


In contrast to Welby, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey backed assisted dying, questioning “why we should force terminally ill patients to an unbearable point”. Additionally, Carey admitted that until recently he would have opposed the Bill, taking a traditional Christian stance, but that the case of Tony Nicholson made him question the morality of placing “dogma before human dignity”. Assisted dying is already legal in Switzerland, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, it is time that Britain and its MPs viewed the right to die as a compassionate, humane option for those facing excruciating pain, panic and trepidation at the end of their lives.


Furthermore, one of the mistakes commonly made by the MPs who spoke on the issue last week was referring to the Bill as ‘assisted suicide’, rather than ‘assisted dying’, overlooking the fundamental difference between the two. Whilst assisted dying involves a terminally ill, mentally competent adult making an individual choice to take lethal drugs, assisted suicide allows those who are chronically ill but not dying to end their lives under medical supervision. Evidently, many of the MPs displayed a worrying lack of understanding of what they were voting on.


Although, as humans, we do not always like the idea of dying in a sedate, gentle manner, there will always be those who wish to avoid drawn-out pain, and some may even attempt to commit suicide as a consequence – a dangerous possibility that influenced Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s support for the Bill. Dignity in Dying has shown that the Suicide Act is ‘out of step with public opinion and current morals and values’; it is time that we cleared the fog and gave people a choice over their death, rather than forcing them to suffer against their wishes. It is time to cross the Rubicon.

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