Archbishop: hear the silent majority on assisted suicide

We must ignore the celebrity campaigns and instead listen to the voices of disabled people and the silent majority on assisted suicide, the Archbishop of York has said.

Dr John Sentamu was responding to publicity surrounding two opinion polls on assisted suicide and a call by Sir Terry Pratchett to legalise the practice.

On Monday the BBC’s Panorama programme featured a ComRes poll which asked just over 1,000 people their views on assisted suicide.

Earlier this week The Daily Telegraph also reported a separate YouGov poll on assisted suicide.

The Archbishop said: “The silent majority never get asked.

“One thousand people out of about 61 million really is not very much guidance.

“Once you begin to open this particular door, it won’t be long before you start having mercy killings.

“I would rather listen to the voices of disabled people than to the voices of celebrities or the voices of 1,000 people in an opinion poll.”

Both the BBC and Telegraph polls appeared to show respondents strongly in favour of weakening the UK’s assisted suicide laws.

The BBC survey showed 73 per cent of respondents said family members or a close friend should not be prosecuted for assisting a loved one’s suicide.

The Telegraph poll asked if relatives who assisted the suicide of someone with a “clear, settled and informed” wish to die should be prosecuted. Over 80 per cent said they should not be prosecuted.

On Monday best selling author Sir Terry Pratchett used a BBC lecture to call for the creation of assisted suicide tribunals.

The pro-euthanasia campaigner, who has Alzheimer’s, suggested doctors should help a person to die if the individual is deemed by a tribunal to be of sound mind at the time of the decision.

Dr Sentamu is not alone in voicing concerns about the recent surveys.

The Daily Telegraph columnist George Pitcher said his paper’s poll results were not a reason to change the law.

Mr Pitcher added that a public opinion poll “cannot be the sole or even principal guide for changing law in matters of life and death”.

He continued: “There is too much at stake. And not just for the sick and dying and for those who care for them, but for all of us.”

In a letter to The Herald newspaper on Monday Dr Calum MacKellar, Director of Research at the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, expressed concern that some of the public opinion surveys on assisted suicide may be misleading.

He spoke about a 2005 House of Lords commission report which looked into assisted suicide.

Mr MacKellar said the commission found that “the polls used to survey people were flawed”.

He continued: “The commission said surveys of the public needed more context and information.

“It was noted workers in the healthcare professions, who are more aware of the complex issues involved, communicated a great deal of caution when surveyed.

“Those with greater awareness of the issues are less likely to support a change in the law.”

In December disabled groups spoke out against any weakening of the assisted suicide laws.

A coalition including the Royal Association for Disabled People, the UK Disabled People’s Council and the National Centre for Disabled Living expressed concern at any weakening of the law.

They said it was “profoundly unhelpful for society to be endorsing or encouraging any disabled person to see their request for assistance to die as reasonable or completely understandable”.

The Archbishop of York also drew attention to Parliament’s actions on the practice of assisted suicide: it has twice rejected laws to legalise assisted suicide.

In July peers in the House of Lords voted against a bid to allow a person to travel abroad and help someone commit suicide.

In 2006 an assisted suicide bill introduced by Lord Joffe was blocked by the House of Lords.

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