Monday 14 July 2014


George Carey - wrong on this one

Hard cases make bad law: nowhere so true as in the matter of assisted suicide.

There are a tiny number of cases where articulate individuals with severe physical illnesses argue the injustice of not being able to get other people to kill them or actively help them to kill themselves. Of course it is hard not to be sympathetic in some of these cases and that is part of the problem. Former Archbishop George Carey admits that his view was swayed by individual cases. As a longstanding law-maker in the House of Lords he should know better.

It was obviously right that the UK reformed the law on suicide in 1961 so that it was no longer an offence to try to take your own life. But they were also right to ensure that this reform did not imply that suicide was an acceptable practice in law - hence the clarity that other people must not assist.

For some religious people this is a clear matter because they see life as sacrosanct, something which takes precedence over any pragmatic considerations in a small number of cases. But as in some other instances religious tradition reflects sensible ethical and practical arguments which apply today.

Legalising assisted suicide would not just result in a change of practice in a confined number of cases: it would create a vast ambiguity about the value of life and wholly compromise the medical profession. It would also inevitably bring out those ghouls who revel in death and want to play a part in taking lives.

Above all it would send a wrong message to people who are unsure about the point of their lives - including many people with a serious mental illness - and make it more difficult for those of us who actively want to prevent suicide. We need the unambiguous support of society in asserting that taking your own life is never the right option. How can we say that if the government approves giving help to people to commit suicide?

The enormous tragedy of so many people with a mental illness taking their own lives is far more significant than the small number of cases where assisted suicide might seem compassionate.