Rowan Williams, grim reaper?

"Church ends taboo on mercy killings," crowed the headline on Sunday's Observer, and the story that followed, by social affairs editor Jamie Doward, carried on in the same excited manner:

Canon Professor Robin Gill, a chief adviser to Rowan Williams, the Archbishop of Canterbury, said people should not be prosecuted for helping dying relatives who are in pain end their lives. Last week Gill was sent by Williams to give evidence to a parliamentary committee investigating euthanasia.

Gill's stance marks a major shift by the Church of England and was welcomed by groups campaigning for a change in the law to allow for people to be helped to die under strictly limited circumstances.

'There is a very strong compassionate case for voluntary euthanasia,' Gill told The Observer. 'In certain cases, such as that which involved Diane Pretty [the woman who was terminally ill with motor neurone disease and who campaigned for the right to be helped to die], there is an overwhelming case for it.'

His claims were last night seized on by pro-euthanasia groups as evidence that the archbishop is prepared to engage in a debate on an issue that has long divided the clergy.

Though Doward quoted Gill as claiming "the majority of churchgoers" would like to see the euthanasia law amended, while their bishops would not, there is no other hint at what the Archbishop of Canterbury has already said on the matter.

UPI took the trouble to ring up a Church of England spokesman for comment:

Arun Kataria, a spokesman for the Anglican Church, said Gill's personal opinions did not signal a change in the church's policy.

"We firmly oppose the legalization of euthanasia," he said.

The Telegraph, which recently took flak for its headline suggesting that Williams doubted God's existence because of the year-end tsunami, also dug deeper than the Observer:

A spokesman for the Church of England last night distanced it from Prof Gill's views. They did not reflect those of anyone else in the church, he said.

"The Church of England made a joint submission with the Roman Catholic bishops on the Assisted Dying Bill, opposing the legalisation of euthanasia," he said.

In a document he released in September with Cormac Cardinal Murphy-O'Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, Williams was clear:

It is deeply misguided to propose a law by which it would be legal for terminally ill people to be killed or assisted in suicide by those caring for them, even if there are safeguards to ensure it is only the terminally ill who would qualify. To take this step would fundamentally undermine the basis of law and medicine and undermine the duty of the state to care for vulnerable people. It would risk a gradual erosion of values in which over time the cold calculation of costs of caring properly for the ill and the old would loom large. As a result many who are ill or dying would feel a burden to others. The right to die would become the duty to die.

The Bill is unnecessary. When death is imminent or inevitable there is at present no legal or moral obligation to give medical treatment that is futile or burdensome. It is both moral and legal now for necessary pain relief to be given even if it is likely that death will be hastened as a result. But that is not murder or assisted suicide. What terminally ill people need is to be cared for, not to be killed. They need excellent palliative care including proper and effective regimes for pain relief. They need to be treated with the compassion and respect that this bill would put gravely at risk.

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