Magazine article The Spectator

Long Life: Alexander Chancellor

Magazine article The Spectator

Long Life: Alexander Chancellor

Article excerpt

How amazing to have two former Anglican archbishops, George Carey of Canterbury and Desmond Tutu of South Africa, supporting Lord Falconer's bill to legalise assisted suicide! It has always been, and remains, a firm doctrine of the Church of England that it is wrong to take a life. Yet here are two Church leaders agreeing with a majority of Britons -- more than 80 per cent, according to the polls -- that it should be legal for a doctor to supply a suffering, terminally ill patient with a lethal dose of poison if he wants it.

Lord Carey said that in changing his mind on this issue he had been deeply influenced by the case of Tony Nicklinson, who suffered from locked-in syndrome after a stroke, which meant that he could only move his eyes and head. He wasn't able to take his own life (though he did eventually die anyway), but tried and failed in various legal applications to let a doctor do it without facing a murder charge. 'Had I been putting doctrine before compassion, dogma before human dignity?' Lord Carey wondered about his previous position. Archbishop Tutu said much the same: 'I have been fortunate to spend my life working for dignity of 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.'

What exactly is a dignified death? It certainly isn't the kind of death arranged by Dignitas, the famous Swiss clinic that helps to kill Britons and other people from countries in which assisted suicide is forbidden. I remember watching a Sky documentary a few years ago in which Craig Ewert, an American man suffering from motor neurone disease, spent his last moments in what looked like a cheap motel room in Zurich while Dignitas staff, eager to show that his death was entirely voluntary and not urged upon him, made him drink his poison unaided and switch off his life-support system with his teeth, his hands being too weak to do so, while constantly reminding him in their Swiss-German accents that he was killing himself -- 'You can drink this? You are going to die, ja ?'

But I wonder if dying is ever exactly dignified. I am lucky never to have seen someone die in pain, but even a peaceful death is hard to bear as the mouth falls open, the breathing gets shallower and eventually the body falls still. …

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