A truly caring society would not allow its most vulnerable members to feel pressured into the tragedy of suicide, says the Archbishop of York.
Writing in the wake of new guidelines on prosecuting assisted suicide, the Archbishop said there must be no “erosion of respect” for the current law.
In his article for The Daily Telegraph he added that “every terminally ill, severely disabled or vulnerable person deserves the right to have their life, rights and interests protected at all times, and have that reflected in the law”.
The Archbishop agreed with the view of one prominent scientist who suffers from multiple sclerosis.
Professor Colin Pillinger said a wrong message is being sent out that: “there are all these people with progressive, incurable diseases just sitting at home waiting to hear if they can go to Switzerland to die”.
The Archbishop commented: “He is right to say it is not like that.
“There are plenty of people out there with terminal conditions who want to live and who want to carry on doing what they do – whether it’s science or sitting in the garden.
“We need to encourage people to make the most of their lives, not wish them away.”
In his article Dr Sentamu said England’s laws have always been shaped by “compassion, mercy and justice”.
The Archbishop said: “As a country, we need to appreciate the sanctity of the human person and their uniqueness.
“Christians believe that their lives are given by God and that everyone has an important role to play in society.
“We do not believe that we own our individual lives and therefore we believe we should not choose to end them deliberately.”
Dr Sentamu said suicide is “always a tragedy, no matter the circumstances”.
He pointed to the case of Daniel James, a 23-year-old rugby player who was helped to commit suicide at a suicide facility in Switzerland.
Dr Sentamu said: “This is not something we should be encouraging and it concerns me that this could become a reality in the UK.”
On Wednesday the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) issued interim guidance outlining the public interest factors he will consider before deciding to pursue assisted suicide cases.
The DPP, Keir Starmer QC, emphasised that assisted suicide remains illegal.
In his book Against Physician Assisted Suicide, Dr David Jeffrey tells the story of a former army instructor who was being treated for terminal cancer and was determined to commit suicide.
After a discussion with the doctor, it emerged that he was missing the Army, and was subsequently taken to watch a passing-out parade of young recruits, where a party had been arranged in his honour.
“His life was transformed,” Dr Jeffrey said. “He had a purpose and his demeanour completely changed. He died two weeks later, comfortably. People’s lives always have that potential. Even in the midst of suffering there can be change.
“You just don’t know what will happen.”
“A different life”
The Times recently reported the story of Matt Hampson, a former rugby player who was paralysed from the neck down during training and now requires a ventilator to breathe.
With the help of carers and a custom-built house, he has been able to set up a website, is writing an autobiography and is the patron of a charity for disabled children called Special Effects.
He says: “I don’t live a bad life, I live a different life. I use my brain more than my brawn now. It has helped me become a more rounded person. I think about things more.
“I’ve had to grow up quite a bit and do things that most 23-year-olds don’t do.”
“I’m grateful I wasn’t allowed to end it all!”
Alison Davis is National Co-ordinator of No Less Human. She was born with severe spina bifida, and is dependent on a wheelchair. She is often in extreme pain for hours at a time. She says that for many years she wanted to “end it all”.
“If euthanasia had been legal, I would certainly have requested it and I wouldn’t be here now,” she says.
But after several serious suicide attempts, blocked by the intervention of Alison’s friends, she began to change her mind.
Alison met the disabled children she had been sponsoring through a charity. The experience led her to think, for the first time in over ten years, “I think I want to live”.
She says: “I’ll always be grateful to the friends who saved my life (though I wasn’t at the time). And I’m especially thankful there was no possibility of persuading my doctors to legally help me die.”
She believes that disabled people “deserve the same kind of help routinely given to those who do not have a physical condition but who feel suicidal”.