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Portsmouth Bishop Philip Egan speaks with children on a visit to Cameroon in February 2014.Catholic Diocese of Portsmouth

With second reading, a debate, and a possible vote expected in the House of Lords Friday, many of Britain’s religious leaders are speaking out urgently against a bill to approve “assisted dying.”

The Catholic bishop of Portsmouth in southern England issued a letter asking the House of Lords to oppose the bill, saying it is always morally inadmissible to accept any form of euthanasia. Bishop Philip Egan called Lord Charles Falconer’s bill a “Pandora’s Box” that would be “a prelude to a much darker ambition, the legalisation of euthanasia, so-called ‘mercy killing’.”

“There is no ‘right to die’, regardless of how vociferous the euthanasia lobby might be. The law as it stands is clearly understood and widely accepted: it is not permitted deliberately to help bring about another’s death,” he said.

Egan said that the bill “would put vulnerable people at risk, putting pressure on the old, the very sick, the unloved to end it all, rather than to ‘become a burden.’ It would be the triumph of despair over hope, as if society were saying to the dying person, it would be better for everyone if you were dead.” It would encourage abuse of the law by “relatives with financial and other interests to manipulate the dying into requesting suicide.”

“What will come next? Is it too fantastical to think of babies by design, eugenics for all, involuntary euthanasia to shorten lives no longer valued, cloning and so on? This is a brave new world. This is not the natural way of life we have treasured.”

The bill’s supporters claim that it contains “safeguards” that will prevent abuse. It requires two physicians to sign off that they are “satisfied” that the patient requesting a lethal dose of drugs has “the capacity to make the decision to end their life,” and has a “settled wish” to do so.

Britain’s current law, which makes assisting a suicide an offence punishable by up to 14 years in prison, has for years been under heavy pressure from euthanasia campaigners. If the new bill is passed in the House of Lords, it will move on to the House of Commons and will repeat the committee process.

Lord Falconer, a long time Labour politician who was Tony Blair’s Lord Chancellor, has become the House of Lords’ leading proponent of changing the law to allow doctors to supply lethal drugs to patients. The bill is opposed by a variety of civil organizations in Britain, including the British Medical Association, which represents the country’s physicians.

The bill is heavily supported, however, not only by those directly campaigning for euthanasia but in the main by the full secularist and leftist establishment. The National Secular Society and the British Humanist Association are both active in support.

Indeed, Bishop Egan specifically identified “secularism” as the philosophical foundation of the bill. As a guiding principle that attempts to restrict religion to a strictly private realm, secularism “dissolves the foundations of public ethics and deprives social life of the impetus needed to put the good into practice. It deprives society of its moral compass.”

“We need to resist the totalitarian ambitions of secularism to ‘privatise’ religion and to replace religion in the public square with itself.”

He said that the secularist philosophy contained the “seeds of its own extension” that have led to a series of logical steps in new laws: “the legalization of abortion (1967), the Human Embryology and Fertilisation Act (1990), the redefinition of marriage (2013), and now assisted suicide.”

“What will come next? Is it too fantastical to think of babies by design, eugenics for all, involuntary euthanasia to shorten lives no longer valued, cloning and so on? This is a brave new world. This is not the natural way of life we have treasured,” he said.

“This is not the Christian understanding of the sacred dignity and infinite value of human life, marriage and the family.”

The euthanasia lobby won a victory when the Director of Public Prosecutions announced in 2010 that there would be no prosecutions of this crime if it could be shown that the offenders had acted out of “compassion.” Within the year those guidelines were announced, the DPP confirmed that at least 20 people had assisted suicides with impunity.

Meanwhile, the issue has divided some prominent retired bishops of the Church of England. Michael Nazir Ali, the former bishop of Rochester, has written a strongly worded rebuke in the Daily Telegraph to the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, who has dropped his previous opposition to the bill. The highly respected Carey wrote in the Daily Mail that the bill is needed “in the face of the reality of needless suffering.”

Nazir Ali wrote, “Instead of concocting expensive ways of getting rid of those at their most vulnerable, we should be making sure that good hospice care is evenly available across the length and breadth of the country.”

The Church of England has issued an appeal for the bill to be defeated, saying, “Patient safety, protection of the vulnerable and respect for the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship are central to the Church of England's concerns about any proposal to change the law.”

But Carey said that re-reading scripture and his conversations with the late Tony Nicklinson, a man who had been campaigning to change the law to allow his wife to give him a lethal injection, had changed his mind.

“I find it a shameful blot on our country’s great reputation for caring for others that we have not come up with a better alternative than the Zurich [Dignitas euthanasia] clinic.”

“The old philosophical certainties have collapsed in the face of the reality of needless suffering,” Carey wrote. “His distress made me question my motives in previous debates. Had I been putting doctrine before compassion, dogma before human dignity?”

The Pakistani-born Nazir Ali, president of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue, took Carey to task, saying he was “amazed” at the latter’s turn-around.

Nazir Ali wrote in the Telegraph that the “vast majority of those who are terminally ill” want “‘assisted living’ rather than ‘assisted dying.’ This is what the Christian-inspired Hospice movement seeks to do, enabling those nearing the end of their lives to prepare for a peaceful and good death.”

“The fact that good hospice care is still a postcode lottery is what should shame us, rather than not having an answer to Dignitas in Switzerland, as Dr. Carey claims.”

At the same time, the Vatican’s nuncio to the UK has also asked the Catholics of Britain to oppose the bill, saying that the “right to die” will inevitably give way to a duty to die. Archbishop Antonio Mennini, in an address to the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales, echoed Bishop Egan when he also called the bill a potential “Pandora’s box.” 

“We know from experience how easily public opinion can be manipulated, especially using ‘emotional’ arguments that try to move compassionate sentiments. But once we open this ‘Pandora’s box’ we know as well the horrible consequences that follow,” he said.

“We have seen that even here, among us, regarding abortion, and the last news about ‘selective abortion’. But also elsewhere, in other European countries which recently have made change in their laws moving from a limited concept of ‘euthanasia’ to a wider spectre, also including children, as in Belgium.”

Mennini urged the bishops “to announce the Gospel of Life among our People, as well as in society in general, presenting the reality which hides behind the ‘nice,’ ‘politically correct’ and ‘compassionate’ expression ‘assisted dying.’”

The Catholic Herald reports that a group of “faith leaders” has issued a letter to the Lords asking that the bill be defeated. Cardinal Vincent Nichols, the archbishop of Westminster and Justin Welby, the Anglican Archbishop of Canterbury, were joined by 21 Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Sikh, Buddhist, Zoroastrian and Jain leaders. The July 16 letter warned that the bill would allow doctors to designate and kill patients as being “of no further value.”

The bill “is not the way forward for a compassionate and caring society,” the letter said. It “invites the prospect of an erosion of carefully tuned values and practices that are essential for the future development of a society that respects and cares for all.”