Dignity in Dying and the callous indignity of their spin


How many of us breathed a big sigh of relief when the voting results for the Assisted Dying (No.2) Bill were announced? Those in the know were expecting a tight race, but the huge 330 – 118 margin of defeat was bigger than that of 1997 when MPs last voted on the issue. So, despite society’s continued liberalisation over the last two decades on various matters – same-sex marriage being the obvious one – the euthanasia lobby has made no progress whatsoever in convincing our elected MPs that the right to commit suicide with the help of the medical profession is, in any way, a good idea.

More often than not, when a vote in Parliament is lost, there is a fairly gracious acceptance of the result, even when there is a lot of egg left on various faces. Back in 2013 when David Cameron suffered an embarrassing defeat on military intervention in Syria, his response was the epitome of graciousness:

It is very clear tonight that while the House has not passed a motion it is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that, and the Government will act accordingly.

Again, in 2013, when the Equal Marriage Bill was passed, the Lords Spiritual signalled that, despite significant previous opposition, they would no longer oppose it and instead work to refine the Bill as it passed through Parliament. In 2014, on the eve of the legislation becoming law, speaking to the Guardian, the Archbishop of Canterbury offered this olive branch:

I think the church has reacted by fully accepting that it’s the law, and should react on Saturday by continuing to demonstrate in word and action, the love of Christ for every human being.

But Dignity in Dying? Did they react with dignity, grace and humility when their latest attempt to change the law was overwhelmingly scuppered? One might think that six failures since 1997 would be sufficient to persuade them give up the fight and re-evaluate their position for lack of support.

Well, not quite. Within minutes their CEO, Dr Sarah Wootton, had described the result as an “outrage”, and put out a press release venting her anger at MPs who were “ridiculously out of touch”. She then signalled that the focus would now shift to the courts:

The law as it stands clearly does not command the support of the public. Parliament has failed to act and if it fails to recognise its responsibility over the next five years then the courts have no choice but to act instead, to end this suffering and injustice.

Judicial activism subverts democracy: the courts ought not to attempt to overturn the manifest will of Parliament, not least because the support to which Dr Wootton refers was taken from a recent self-commissioned Dignity in Dying poll which found that 82 per cent of respondents backed a change in the law. However, under independent scrutiny, this poll has been found to be comprehensively flawed:

..But the results did not stand up to scrutiny when examined by two experts from the highly respected Institute for Social and Economic Research at Essex University. Their report questioned the way the online poll was carried out and suggested it missed whole sections of the population, particularly those who do not use the internet – which means many older people were shut out from taking part.

It said the poll failed to take into account the views either of the terminally ill or medical professionals. Medical professionals, the researchers said, are on past evidence less enthusiastic about assisted suicide than the rest of the public.

The survey also failed to give people the option to say they were ‘don’t knows’. Instead it pushed them into giving answers in favour of assisted dying by asking over-long and leading questions using loaded language – such as saying that assisted dying would help those in ‘unbearable suffering’.

Answers in favour of assisted dying were placed first among the options for people considering the questions, the researchers said.

A flawed research methodology skews data, but Dignity in Dying are no strangers to the dark art of spin. They have become masters of it due to the simple truth that their support among those with experience of delivering end-of-life care is markedly limited. On the Featured Patrons page of their website, the majority of those profiled are actors, comedians and authors. These are individuals who will gain publicity (for themselves and their cause) but are not in a position to speak on behalf of professional healthcare organisations, disability charities or faith groups who all refuse to support the principle of assisted suicide.

The compelling religious opposition to Dignity in Dying’s aims has been a constant thorn in their side and, as their own polling has shown, opposition to assisted suicide is strongest among those who most frequently attend worship: support is highest amongst infrequent attendees; those who might be described as culturally or more loosely affiliated to a religion.

What is surprising is not that Dignity in Dying has sought to apply PR solutions to their problematic lack of support among churches and other religious bodies, but that they have taken a more combative position against those with a religious faith more generally; those who tend to believe that assisted suicide is mistaken, regardless of whether the primary objection is on religious or non-religious grounds. This has, as we saw last weekend, extended so far as to question the sincerity of those advancing pragmatic arguments about concern for the vulnerable, because they might also happen to have a faith, or because they may be associated with others that do.

In June, Catherine Bennett wrote in the GuardianWhen politicians do God, no wonder we have doubts. She focused negatively on Liberal Democrat leadership contender Tim Farron’s Christian beliefs. Wootton tweeted that she “couldn’t agree more” with Bennett, who had concluded that “everyone agrees that, when it might affect their objectivity, MPs must declare an interest. It seems only fair to ask that, when ethics are debated, they disclose which supernatural affiliation has dictated their response, along with any penalties for disobedience”.

Doubtless Dignity in Dying has employees who profess a faith, and the organisation makes no claim to be a body with an objective to further any secular or religious ideology. But what Wootton and her PR team fail to recognise is that there is more to mainstream Church opposition to assisted suicide than what they consider to be dogmatic adherence to the ‘sanctity of life’. Alongside considerations of ethics and theology, the Church of England’s position is informed by its considerable experience of helping to deliver end-of-life care through hospital and hospice chaplaincy, and through pastoral ministry in parishes – by being alongside the ill, the dying and the bereaved. It is a position entirely consistent with the Church’s wider concern for the common good.

In perpetuating the crude caricature that a majority of those who oppose assisted suicide conceal a faith-based motivation, or that having a faith is a barrier to objectivity in professional discernment, Dignity in Dying do themselves and their campaign a callous and discriminatory disservice.

When considering the question: ‘Is a religious view on assisted suicide legitimate or not?’, if the test of that legitimacy is whether the view happens to concur with Dignity in Dying’s campaign objectives, it is clearly the case that any endorsement of a religious viewpoint by Dignity in Dying is insincere. Worse, it is fundamentally meaningless, which is perhaps a point that Lord Carey and other recalcitrant clerics might want to ponder.

Now that the dust has begun to settle, it is time to put the spotlight on the undignified tactics of Dignity in Dying. Democracy works best when laws are formed through considered judgment by legislators willing to consider the matters in hand with a good degree of objectivity. Pace Canon Rosie Harper, they are intelligent people who can apply their minds and intellects. But the lobbying approach of Dignity in Dying is not only based on misinformation; their underhand disinformation presents a distorted picture of the reality. They are quite happy to dismiss large sections of society who happen to disagree with them for legitimate reasons, and they publicly ridicule those who speak out against their objectives. Ironically, for all their secularity, their obsessive zeal for ‘good death’ is consistent with that of a religious cult, seeking to coerce the innocent and unstudied; asserting an abusive creed on manipulable people rather than advancing the best outcome for the common good of all.

Fortunately, this time round, MPs refused to succumb to Dignity in Dying’s aggressive campaigning. Writing in The Times last weekend, Justin Welby acknowledged that the views of the Bill’s supporters were “sincerely held and well-intentioned”, but the suggestion that assisted dying was the only compassionate response to terminal illness was “mistaken and dangerous”. In fact, it is not just the suggestion that is mistaken and dangerous, but Dignity in Dying themselves. This must not be forgotten when they launch their next offensive, as they inevitably will. The indignity of dignity is absolute.