Three of Britain’s most senior religious leaders have come together to express their concern about ‘back door’ attempts to legalise euthanasia.
Rowan Williams, The Archbishop of Canterbury; Vincent Nichols, the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster; and Sir Jonathan Sacks, the Chief Rabbi, have signed a joint letter to The Daily Telegraph.
The letter comes as the House of Lords prepares to debate whether to legalise helping someone to travel abroad to kill themselves.
The three faith leaders say such a move “would surely put vulnerable people at serious risk, especially sick people who are anxious about the burden their illness may be placing on others”.
They added: “This amendment would mark a shift in British law towards legalising euthanasia.
“We do not believe that such a fundamental change in the law should be sought by way of an amendment to an already complex Bill. It should be rejected.”
Similar concerns have been raised by top legal figures who say proposals to change the law are “ill-defined, unsound and unnecessary”.
The lawyers are: Lord Mackay of Clashfern, a former Lord Chancellor; Baroness Butler-Sloss, the former President of the Family Division; Lord Brennan, QC, a Deputy High Court judge; Lord Carlile, the Government’s independent reviewer of anti-terrorism laws; and Lord Elystan-Morgan, a former judge.
The legal experts say: “The conditions that are being proposed for immunity from prosecution are ill-defined and lacking in rigour and would fail to protect vulnerable sick people from unscrupulous coercion or abuse.”
The amendment to the current law on assisted suicide has been tabled by Lord Falconer. It would allow someone to help a terminally ill person travel abroad to a place where euthanasia is legal.
Lord Falconer has cited the example of the Dignitas facility in Switzerland where over 100 Britons are thought to have ended their lives.
But the facility and its campaigning owner, the human rights lawyer Ludwig Minelli, have been shrouded in controversy.
In April Mr Minelli told the BBC that suicide was “marvellous possibility” and that he wanted to help healthy people and the mentally ill to die.
His facility is reportedly under investigation after helping a physically healthy man, who suffered from depression, to kill himself.
A nurse who formerly worked at Dignitas has accused Mr Minelli of profiting from patients’ deaths.
Earlier this month it emerged that a number of the Britons who have so far committed suicide at Dignitas were suffering from “treatable” conditions.
Last week it was reported that the Swiss Government is considering a new proposal to ban assisted suicide facilities in Switzerland.
Dr Peter Saunders of the Care Not Killing group said: “We see Lord Falconer’s amendment as an attempt to legalise assisted euthanasia by stealth – to get the principle established.”
“The next step would be say ‘We need to change the law here as well now’,” he warned.
Sarah Wootton, chief executive of pro-euthanasia group Dignity in Dying, said: “At least 115 Britons have travelled abroad to die, and many more look set to follow them.
“This is despite a law which threatens anybody who accompanies them with prosecution and imprisonment of up to 14 years.
“This law causes real distress to those contemplating travelling abroad to die and their loved ones, and in reality does very little to protect against abuse.”
She said that Lord Falconer’s proposal “introduces upfront safeguards which state that immunity from prosecution only applies to those that accompany a terminally ill adult, who is competent to make the decision and has set out their wishes in a declaration witnessed by an independent person.”
Keith Porteous Wood, executive director of the National Secular Society, said: “The UK’s religious leaders continue heartlessly to seek to impose their dogma by law against the majority.”