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Bishop urges caution after Nicklinson assisted dying case

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Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali has warned that "moral chaos" will ensue if the Christian basis for the laws protecting life in the UK is rejected.

He made the comments after a controversial article by former Catholic Herald editor, Peter Stanford, was published in the Telegraph last week (24 August).

Stanford said that a visit to Tony Nicklinson’s home “changed his views” on the right-to-die issue.

He wrote: “…I went into the Nicklinsons’ specially adapted bungalow in the Wiltshire town of Melksham fundamentally opposed to any concessions on euthanasia, I emerged with my arguments demolished”.

However, Nazir-Ali has responded by sounding a note of caution:

“Tony's was a heart-rending situation and my sympathy is with all the family at this time.

“We cannot, however, allow emotion to cloud our valuing of the Christian basis for law in this country.

“The recognition and protection of the person is based on ideas derived from the Bible about dignity because we are made in God's image, about equality because of our common origin and about liberty because we have been created free.

“Any jettisoning of these fundamental values will lead to moral chaos”.

Mr Nicklinson died last week after he lost his legal bid to receive assistance in ending his own life.

Bishop Michael added:

“Patients may, of course, refuse treatment and even nutrition and hydration.

“Doctors can, indeed must, cease treatment if it is useless, disproportionate to the relief it provides or unduly intrusive or painful. They may relieve pain and make a patient comfortable, even if it hastens death. They are not bound to keep the patient alive at all costs!

“This cannot mean though that they violate their own vocation to protect and enhance life whenever they can, by doing what even the ones nearest to the patient were loathe to do”.

The former Bishop of Rochester went on to highlight two further issues concerning media reporting in the light of Tony Nicklinson’s case. He said:  

“I must also question whether Peter Stanford's views would have changed quite so dramatically had he visited terminally ill patients who do not want to take their own lives.

“Revd Michael Wenham, who has a form of motor neuron disease, is one such person who has frequently argued against any change in the law on assisted dying.

“Furthermore, utmost care must be taken when reporting on suicides in the media. The phenomenon of 'copycat suicides' is well documented in the social scientific literature and we should therefore be mindful of those people who are most vulnerable and at risk of taking their own lives.”

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali is the President of the Oxford Centre for Training, Research, Advocacy and Dialogue (OXTRAD) and the former Bishop of Rochester.