Assisted dying probe call by Church
The Church of England has called for a new inquiry into assisted dying following a shock intervention by a former Archbishop of Canterbury over the issue.
The Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Rev James Newcome, who speaks for the Church of England on health, said Lord Falconer should withdraw his Bill to legalise assisted dying in favour of a Royal Commission on the subject.
He said the Church of England had been "surprised" by the content and timing of an article written by Lord Carey in the Daily Mail in which the former head of the Church of England said he had dropped his long-standing opposition to legalising assisted dying.
"I think we were surprised by both the content and the timing of the article, but recognise that actually, quite a lot of good things have come out of it, including that it has brought some of the issues to the forefront of public discussion and highlighted just what an important issue this is," said Bishop Newcome.
"Certainly our hope as the Church of England is that the Falconer Bill will be withdrawn and that because this is such an important issue it could be discussed at length by a Royal Commission."
Bishop Newcome said the Supreme Court ruling last month over the case brought by the widow of locked in syndrome sufferer Tony Nicklinson had "heightened the stakes" over the issue.
He said a Royal Commision would allow the arguments to be "carefully assessed" and for expert opinion to be taken.
He added that the Church of England is in favour of the law on assisted suicide to remain unaltered as it provides a "good balance" between compassion and protection of the vulnerable.
His call for a Royal Commission was immediately rejected by Lord Falconer, a former Labour Lord Chancellor, whose Bill is due to receive a second reading in the House of Lords on Friday.
The Bill proposes allowing doctors to prescribe a lethal dose to terminally ill patients judged to have less than six months to live.
Lord Falconer said he did not believe a Royal Commission would be "sensible or appropriate".
"It is an unwise suggestion because it will take a very long time," he said.
"This matter has been debated now in the House of Lords twice and the third time coming up on Friday.
"The Supreme Court ruling said that it is urgent for Parliament to discuss the issue."
He added: "I am very surprised that the Bishop of Carlisle, who is a marvellous man, would come up with a suggestion like this at the last minute."
The Church's call comes as Lord Carey, who was head of the Church of England and spiritual leader of the Anglican Communion between 1991 and 2002, wrote in the Daily Mail that it would not be "anti-Christian" to change the law.
He said he would be backing Lord Falconer's Bill and warned that by opposing reform the Church risked "promoting anguish and pain".
But the current head of the Church of England the Most Rev Justin Welby, who was installed as Archbishop of Canterbury last year, described the Falconer Bill as "mistaken and dangerous".
"It would be very naive to think that many of the elderly people who are abused and neglected each year, as well as many severely disabled individuals, would not be put under pressure to end their lives if assisted suicide were permitted by law," he wrote in The Times.
"It would be equally naive to believe, as the Assisted Dying Bill suggests, that such pressure could be recognised in every instance by doctors given the task of assessing requests for assisted suicide.
"Abuse, coercion and intimidation can be slow instruments in the hands of the unscrupulous, creating pressure on vulnerable people who are encouraged to 'do the decent thing'."
Lord Carey's remarks drew support from Church of England General Synod member the Rev Canon Rosie Harper, vicar of Great Missenden, Bucks, who backs the Falconer Bill.
"Lord Carey's intervention is huge, it is mega," she said.
"It means in effect that it is legitimate to be both Christian and hold these views.
"I think it is a game changer."
Under the 1961 Suicide Act, it remains a criminal offence carrying up to 14 years in jail to help take someone's life.
The Director of Public Prosecutions issued guidelines four years ago that made clear that anyone who assisted a loved one to die while "acting out of compassion" would be unlikely to be charged.
The Bill drawn up by Lord Falconer is modelled on the system in the US state of Oregon and would mean patients would be able to administer a fatal dose of drugs to themselves, but would not be able to receive help if they could not lift or swallow it.
The process would have to be signed off by two doctors.
A senior Church of England official later said the Supreme Court judgment had raised complex issues which are not addressed by the Falconer Bill.
"The Supreme Court was widely reported as supporting the case for Falconer. Actually, it opens a whole raft of questions," said the official.
"The points they raise are legal and ethical and simply supersede Falconer," he said.
"You cannot deal with questions in the Supreme Court judgment on the floor of the House of Commons in the second reading."
He said a Royal Commission would be a "perfectly good way" of addressing the complexities of the judgment.