Lord Carey Supports Assisted Suicide Legislation in the U.K.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury: ‘Why I support assisted suicide’

Published 11 July 2014  |   Ruth Gledhill

(Photo: Simon P Caldwell)

A former Archbishop of Canterbury has come out in support of assisted dying.

The change of mind by Lord Carey of Clifton just days before a crucial parliamentary vote on the issue is particularly significant because he was regarded as a supporter of the conservative evangelical wing of the Church of England, which is fiercely opposed.

Lord Carey said tonight that he now supports helping some terminally ill patients to die.

“Anyone who has had to watch a loved one go through the final agonies of a painful terminal illness is bound to ask deep philosophical questions about the nature of life and death,” he writes in The Daily Mail.

“I remember Dorothy, one of my congregation many years ago, at the beginning of my career, when I was a parish priest in Durham. An intelligent and faithful Christian lady, she had been an outstanding head teacher. In retirement, she found out that she had cancer in an advanced form. I visited her regularly in hospital. I saw the ravages of the illness on her body as she was given huge doses of morphine to try to keep the excruciating pain at bay.

“Talking about her discomfort one day as she lay with tubes dripping fluids in and taking fluids away, Dorothy questioned whether she could go on, whether life was worth living. ‘It is quality of life that counts,’ she whispered, ‘not number of days.’

When I visited her again, I must have looked very miserable because she looked up at me and said: ‘Why are you so sad, Vicar? I’m only dying, you know!”

Lord Carey, who was influenced by witnessing the plight of sufferers such as Tony Nicklinson, who campaigned in vain to be allowed the right to die, says: “Even the most devout believers will find their faith tested by the sight of a dying person in torment – especially when modern medicine could swiftly bring the torment to a merciful end.

“Indeed, this rapid advance of medical technology has brought us to a crucial ethical turning point.

“For, while drugs might be able to hasten the end more quickly and painlessly, sophisticated medical science also offers people the chance to be kept alive far beyond anything that would have been possible only a few years ago.”

Next week, peers are due to debate Lord Falconer’s controversial Assisted Dying Bill. The proposed new law would enable doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs to terminally ill patients who have stated a clearly expressed intention to end their lives.

Lord Carey says that until recently, he would have “fiercely opposed” the Bill.

“I would have used the time-honoured argument that we should be devoting ourselves to care, not killing. I would have paraded all the usual concerns about the risks of ‘slippery slopes’ and ‘state-sponsored euthanasia’. But those arguments that persuaded me in the past seem to lack power and authority now when confronted with the experiences of those suffering a painful death.”

He says the current law fails to address the fundamental question of why terminally ill patients should be forced to go on in unbearable pain and with little quality of life.

“The fact is that I have changed my mind. The old philosophical certainties have collapsed in the face of the reality of needless suffering.”

He will urge a change in the law in the Lords next week. “Today we face a terrible paradox. In strictly observing accepted teaching about the sanctity of life, the Church could actually be sanctioning anguish and pain – the very opposite of the Christian message. Indeed, there is nothing anti-Christian about embracing the reforms that Lord Falconer’s Bill offers.”

The Church of England, meeting in York this weekend, said in a statement: “In February 2012 the General Synod passed a motion which ‘affirms the intrinsic value of every human life and expresses its support for the current law on assisted suicide as a means of contributing to a just and compassionate society in which vulnerable people are protected’. The debate on the motion covered all of the issues raised by Dr Carey’s article.”

During the debate in 2012 Dr Rowan Williams, who succeeded Lord Carey as Archbishop, warned that changes to the law to allow assisted suicide would spell “disaster” and a shift in society’s attitude to the sanctity of life.

The current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, also supports current Church policy that the law should not change.

Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, chair of the Inter Faith Leaders for Dignity in Dying and editor of Assisted Dying – Rabbinic Responses, published this year, said: “The former Archbishop’s words are like a breath of fresh air sweeping through rooms cloaked in theological dust that should have been dispersed long ago. He shows that it is possible to be both religious and in favour of Assisted Dying.

“It also indicates that the debate is not – as it often thought – a battle between the religious and secular camps, but is within the religious community too.

“There are many who have both a deep faith and a desire to see assisted dying legalised in Britain as an voluntary option for the terminally ill providing there are safeguards to protect the vulnerable.

“There are also a growing number of clergy like myself who are only too familiar with those dying in pain, who see nothing sacred in suffering and for whom a religious response means allowing them the option of assisted death if they so wish.

“George Carey deserves praise for being brave enough both to re-examine previous religious certainties and to propose new approaches more appropriate for a changing world.”


This ‘Guardian’ report, by respected U.K. Religious Correspondent Ruth Gledhill, offers the surprising news that the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord George Carey, has changed his mind on the efficacy of what is becoming known as a bill in the British Parliament to facilitate assisted suicide for terminally ill patients.

Surprising, because of Lord Carey’s consistently anti-liberal views on matters like Gay Rights and a more liberal interpretation of the Bible. All the more surprising, too, because of the current Archbishop’s fight against the proposed legislation. However, here is Lord Carey’s own rationale for his change of opinion in this motal dilemma:

“I would have used the time-honoured argument that we should be devoting ourselves to care, not killing. I would have paraded all the usual concerns about the risks of ‘slippery slopes’ and ‘state-sponsored euthanasia’. But those arguments that persuaded me in the past seem to lack power and authority now when confronted with the experiences of those suffering a painful death.”

Here again, it is the experience of the effect of illiberal rules on real people’s lives that can change points of view on most matters of moral probity. Lord Carey’s view on Divorce, for instance, was changed because of its effect on his own extended family. He obviously has no known gay relatives, or he might just be a bit more understanding of issues in that area. However, he has obviously been moved by the situations of various people he has known to be in the position of living with terminal illness that the new British legislation seeks to alleviate.

One wonders whether a merciful Creator God would absolutely condemn the actions of those who seek to alleviate real suffering, where there might be a more compassionate way through.

Full marks to Lord Carey on this dramatic change to his thinking on an important issue.

Father Ron Smith, Christchurch, New Zealand


About kiwianglo

Retired Anglican priest, living in Christchurch, New Zealand. Ardent supporter of LGBT Community, and blogger on 'Thinking Anglicans UK' site. Theology: liberal, Anglo-Catholic & traditional. regarding each person as a unique expression of Christ, and therefore lovable.
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2 Responses to Lord Carey Supports Assisted Suicide Legislation in the U.K.

  1. Michael Primrose says:

    Hi Fr Ron,

    You might like to read this contribution from Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as published in The Observer, on July 13.


    As one would expect, it appears to be a sensible comment, from an empathetic cleric, on a difficult subject

    “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.”

    A reasonable touchstone to judge the worth of any life I would have thought

    Michael Primrose, Christchurch

  2. murraysmallbone says:

    Death is the best medicine of all! A seemingly harsh statement,but another step in the journey back home.
    Having been intimately involved in the long process of terminal illness through the death of my civil partner,I add some salutary observations in this debate.
    The dying have must to teach us if we watch and listen, rather than fretting about the natural processes of approaching death. These processes can be very distressing for the dying and the watchers,however with truly attentive medical care and in the case of Christian souls lots of prayer and sacramental attendance, a balanced management can be achieved.In a Christian setting the faith of watchers can be enlivened. Watchers must not run,because it is too much to bear.
    Again in a Christian setting,the dying and watchers are are the foot of the Cross.
    So what did I learn in my own experience;from the lips of my beloved “Always pray, and pray again”. Also observing the comfort which the Sacraments bought,not solely spiritual,but visible strength. Our Lord is very present with the dying,watchers too can benefit from such graces.
    As ABC Justin has reminded us “Compassion ” is suffering with,so perhaps in this debate we need a clearer word to define hastening of end in sight !
    I am intrigued by this debate,as much already exists in medical science and care of the dying which can facilitate a Happy and Holy death, without a single lethal act, which would seem to be the intent of the current debate.
    Speaking in a Christian context, we must continually grapple with suffering and value it as sharing in the fullness of Our Lord.
    I look forward to the debate in the House of Lords, as this is one place where experience will guide a balanced view.

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