Archbishop calls for 'mind shift' on right to die and condemns as 'disgraceful' the treatment of the dying Nelson Mandela
Desmond Tutu, one of the world's most eminent religious leaders, has made an extraordinary intervention in the debate over assisted death, by backing the right of the terminally ill to end their lives in dignity.
Tutu, who calls for a "mind shift" in the right to die debate, writes: "I have been fortunate to spend my life working for dignity for the living. Now I wish to apply my mind to the issue of dignity for the dying. I revere the sanctity of life – but not at any cost."
On Saturday the former archbishop of Canterbury Lord (George) Carey spoke out in favour of the bill. But in an article in the Times, Justin Welby, the current archbishop and head of the Church of England, reaffirmed the church's traditional hostility to any move that would endanger the principle of the sanctity of life. Tutu notes that Falconer's bill will be debated on Mandela Day, which would have been the 96th birthday of South Africa's first black president. He calls for his own country to follow Britain's lead in examining a change in the law.
"On Mandela Day we will be thinking of a great man," he writes. "On the same day, on 18 July 2014 in London, the House of Lords will be holding a second hearing on Lord Falconer's bill on assisted dying. Oregon, Washington, Quebec, Holland, Switzerland have already taken this step. South Africa has a hard-won constitution that we are proud of that should provide a basis to guide changes to be made on the legal status of end-of-life wishes to support the dignity of the dying."
Falconer's proposals are being fiercely opposed by key figures such as Welby, and campaigners for the rights of disabled people. Richard Hawkes, chief executive of the disability charity Scope, said he feared the bill would put some people under pressure to end their lives. He said: "Why is it that when people who are not disabled want to commit suicide, we try to talk them out of it, but when a disabled person wants to commit suicide, we focus on how we can make that possible?"
In his article for the Observer, Tutu says that he has been moved by the case of a 28-year-old South African, Craig Schonegevel, who suffered from neurofibromatosis and felt forced to end his life by swallowing 12 sleeping pills and tying two plastic bags around his head with elastic bands because doctors could not help him.
Tutu writes: "Some say that palliative care, including the giving of sedation to ensure freedom from pain, should be enough for the journeying towards an easeful death. Some people opine that with good palliative care there is no need for assisted dying, no need for people to request to be legally given a lethal dose of medication. That was not the case for Craig Schonegevel. Others assert their right to autonomy and consciousness – why exit in the fog of sedation when there's the alternative of being alert and truly present with loved ones?"
He also discloses that he has now had a conversation with his family about his own death. "I have come to realise that I do not want my life to be prolonged artificially," he writes. "I think when you need machines to help you breathe then you have to ask questions about the quality of life being experienced and about the way money is being spent. This may be hard for some people to consider.
"But why is a life that is ending being prolonged? Why is money being spent in this way? It could be better spent on a mother giving birth to a baby, or an organ transplant needed by a young person. Money should be spent on those that are at the beginning or in full flow of their life. Of course, these are my personal opinions and not of my church."
"People should die a decent death," he continues. "For me that means having had the conversations with those I have crossed with in life and being at peace. It means being able to say goodbye to loved ones – if possible, at home." He adds: "I can see I would probably incline towards the quality of life argument, whereas others will be more comfortable with palliative care. Yes, I think a lot of people would be upset if I said I wanted assisted dying. I would say I wouldn't mind, actually."