Church of England

Assisted Dying: Canon Rosie Harper condemns "extreme and emotive claims" of "a certain section of believers"


The Archbishop of Canterbury couldn’t be any clearer: ‘MPs must not take risks with the lives of vulnerable people‘, he writes in the Evening Standard. He is unequivocal, too, about the flaws in Rob Marris’s Assisted Dying (No2) Bill which comes (again) before Parliament today.

He warns of the “perilous legal and ethical slope” and the ever-present “slippery slope” of the right to die becoming a duty upon all who see themselves as burden to family or society. He acknowledges the proposed protections, not least of which is the option to die being restricted to those who have “less than six months to live and who have made a settled and informed decision to end their lives”. But:

How do we know that someone has less than six months to live? Experts in end of life care affirm that while it is possible to speak with some degree of certainty of the last days and hours of life it is quite impossible to be precise when it comes to a prognosis stretching into months.

How do we know that someone has come to a settled and informed decision? Psychiatrists tell us that it can take the full six months proposed in the Bill to rule out an individual suffering from clinical depression; a condition that would surely preclude them from accessing prescribed lethal drugs.

How can we be absolutely certain that individuals will not be put under considerable pressure to end their lives? Of course, no one is going to march their elderly relative to the GP’s surgery. Pressure can be subtle and might begin years before a terminal illness is diagnosed.

Parliament cannot legislate for this, and judges can do nothing but adjudicate on the paperwork provided by doctors, upon whom the pastoral pressures will become intolerable. And Justin Welby invokes the experiences of other EU states:

We know from experiences in the US, Belgium and the Netherlands that things do go wrong. In the American state of Oregon, a mere 5.5 per cent of patients ingesting lethal drugs were referred for psychiatric evaluation.

In the Netherlands, Theo Boer, a former member of a government review committee has written, “It has not been possible to stop some patients asking to have their lives ended because of indirect or even unintentional pressure from relatives.”

In Belgium, what began as a “mercy” for adults has ended up with euthanasia for children.

This is nothing to do with the inviolability of ‘religion’, immutable impositions of ‘truth’ or pious assertions of the ‘sanctity of life’. It is to do with protecting the vulnerable – the weak, lonely and frail; the elderly, dispossessed and disabled.

The Rev’d Canon Peter Holliday is Deputy Chair of Hospice UK, and Group Chief Executive of St Giles Hospice in Lichfield, which cares for more than 6,000 patients a year. He is of the view that, if passed, the Assisted Dying Bill “would put thousands of society’s most vulnerable members at risk”. And not only that:

It could also put hospices at risk. Some of our local funding streams from the NHS have been chipped away in recent years and those remaining have become more dependent upon doing things in the way the NHS requires. Rue the day when funding becomes dependent upon hospices’ willingness to facilitate assisted dying.

Here is a primary manifestation of the “slippery slope” of which the Archbishop warns. The moment Parliament determines the lawfulness of assisted dying, hospices will find themselves subject to certain funding constraints: there will be no state contracts or taxpayer support for the bigoted, extremist, medieval views of the palliative holy huddle who deny people their right to die. Such charities will be forced to comply or close, as we have seen with Roman Catholic adoption agencies. Canon Holliday explains:

The National Health Service requires us, in our contracts, to comply with the requirements of the NHS. Now if the NHS is going to be required to offer assisted dying there is of course the possibility that it would require us or an organisation contracting with the NHS also to offer assisted dying. If we as an organisation were able, and at the moment under the terms of the bill there is no indication we would be able, but if we were able to say that assisted dying was not something that would happen on our premises, would that prejudice our funding from the NHS ?

The ethos ceases to be one of providing the best possible care until natural death: it becomes one of obligation to inform patients of their options for hastening their death, and then to assist them in the act of suicide.

But the Rev’d Canon Rosie Harper is having none of this. She writes:

I suspect that the way some religious voices have made their arguement (sic) will prove counter productive. Very extreem (sic) and emotive claims have been made, such as ‘a culture of death’. Religious voices such as my own, who believe that Assisted Dying is in line with a compassionate and loving faith, and of an humane society, have been brushed aside even though we speak for well over half of people of faith in this country. They have chosen to use the word suicide even though this is not what the bill is about. Suicide pre-supposes that there is an alternative outcome which is to live, assisted dying is about a person caught up in the process of dying who might want to choose to have some control over the manner of their own death. We could have had a grown up conversation about this, but there has been a wild, passionate and at times tearful outpouring from a certain section of believers which has provoked non-religious people such as Polly T(oynbee) to write off the religious postion (sic) as unhelpful and indeed irrelevant

One treads carefully here, for merely to question Canon Rosie Harper is to be “extreme and emotive”. The mere highlighting of her erroneous theology or the publishing of her abject reasoning makes one, in her assessment, “unpleasant”, which is swiftly followed by allegations from her boss the Bishop of Buckingham of “trolling”.

But many non-believers also equate assisting dying with suicide. Journalist Hannah Fearn is one such. By her own admission she has “faith in nothing more than progress of scientific inquiry and the powerful humanity of everyday people”, yet she pens: Let’s face up to the fact that assisted death is really assisted suicide‘.

Is that “extreme and emotive”?

How is it “extreme and emotive” to warn that the most vulnerable in society will indeed be coerced by a “culture of death”? Does Canon Harper understand what culture is? Does she not appreciate that the introduction of lawful assisted suicide fundamentally transforms society – and so culture – from one of supporting life to that of promoting death? Dare one address the fundamental illogicality of Canon Harper’s objection to the “extreme and emotive” equating of ‘dying’ with ‘suicide’? She reasons: 

They have chosen to use the word suicide even though this is not what the bill is about. Suicide pre-supposes that there is an alternative outcome which is to live, assisted dying is about a person caught up in the process of dying who might want to choose to have some control over the manner of their own death.

Those who opt for assisted dying have no alternative? They are going to die anyway, so let them get on with it? Is that not true of the whole of humanity? Don’t doctors make mistakes? Why should the threshold be drawn at six months? Why not nine months, or a year? What is Canon Harper’s “compassionate and loving” response to those who are chronically depressed? What happens to terminally ill children? May their parents be permitted to make decisions on their behalf? If not, why not? What is her theological rationale for helping to dispatch those who are “caught up in the process of dying”, but not those who simply wish to die? If absolute autonomy extends to one’s life, what is the philosophical rationale for limiting the ‘right to die’ to terminal illness?

“We could have had a grown up conversation about this,” Canon Harper opines. We could indeed, but her preference is to block people on Twitter, call them “unpleasant”, and get her Bishop to make false allegations of “trolling”. Those who disagree with her “compassionate and loving faith” are, quite simply, not worth responding to. The fact that she rebels against the Church of England’s official teaching does not merit a reasoned response: the Church Synod, House of Bishops, Archbishops’ Council is, quite simply, as a matter of basic logic, un-compassionate and unloving.

But, for Canon Rosie Harper, all those who oppose assisted dying/suicide are immoral and un-Christian. That is exactly what she told the House of Lords last year (with apologies for the skewed scan, but that’s how it was received):


The final paragraph is astonishing in its starkness and cruelty. Here is a canon of the Established Church telling peers of the Realm that, should they oppose Assisted Dying, they are personally “requiring people to suffer extreme agony”, and so voting in a manner which is “neither moral nor Christian”.

How “extreme and emotive” is that?

She appears to be of the view that simply because her uncle was able to make a considered decision to journey to Dignitas in Switzerland to end his life surrounded by a loving family, and because this worked for him and all of them, that all individuals and families must have access to the same “compassion”. She appears oblivious to the intolerable pressure this might (indeed, will) place on some who are dying, just as she was oblivious to the number of peers she offended with her assertion that their motive is to “require” the dying “to suffer extreme agony” simply to assuage their own consciences.

Note the ethical assertion of ‘conscience-primacy’, as though the theology of those who oppose the Bill were simply a question of callous, subjective individuality.

Death is not a divine distalgesic: it is the passing of the soul to judgment and into eternity. Hitherto, God has determined the number of our days. Lord Falconer, Rob Marris and Canon Rosie Harper are of the view that people should be assisted to kill themselves, should they so desire. Leaving it all to God becomes a manifest denial of rights and choice, totally lacking in compassion and devoid of any dignity whatsoever. Death can be painful and messy, so let’s make it quick and clinical.

Those of us who believe in the sanctity of life – “a certain section of believers” are cruelly putting our consciences above love and compassion. We all know how that language game works.

Make no mistake, Rob Marris’s Assisting Dying (No.2) Bill is exactly the same as Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill, and both are identical to what will doubtless be the Assisted Dying (No.3, 4 & 5) Bills. They are necessary steps toward terminating the lives of the sick and vulnerable, not to mention those who feel worthless, depressed, lonely, unloved and unvalued. They may not be forced to die, but they will certainly feel less of a burden on their families and on society if their deaths were to be hastened.

Instead of demanding the right to die, the Church ought to be concerned with optimism, hope and improving palliative care. Indeed, the Church is prioritising these things, but Canon Harper is not. Her mode of compassion prioritises the eradication of suffering, and those who oppose her in her quest are immoral and un-Christian. There is no debate to be had or doubt in her mind.

The suffering of Job was immense: his mental anguish and physical pain made him yearn for death, and he pleaded daily for it. Had he been ‘assisted’ to that end, he would not have seen his vindication, and God’s glory would not have been revealed. He wasn’t protected by a ‘six months to live’ clause, but his comforters wouldn’t have been overly concerned about that. Your GP might know you have nine months or year to live, but (s)he’ll compassionately give you six so you may legally make the choice to ‘die with dignity’. Once the legal right is embedded in our culture, there will be incremental nudges toward expectation and thence to the Belgian option, where they are, as the Archbishop of Canterbury reminds us, legally euthanising their children. What is that if it is not immoral and un-Christian? Or evil?