Removing religious voices from 'right to die' debate

The Court of Appeal for England and Wales has upheld the blanket ban on euthanasia and assisted suicide, holding there is no "right to die" under British and European Community law. The court in Nicklinson & Anor, R (on the application of) v A Primary Care Trust [2013] EWCA Civ 961 held there was no legal, moral or social need to rethink Parliament's prohibition on euthanasia. However, if you turned to The Independent to find out what happened you might well be excused for thinking this was an exercise in unthinking, hard-hearted judicial tyranny. The article "Barbaric and inhumane: Paralysed man Paul Lamb hits back after judges dismiss his right-to-die appeal" is unbalanced and ill-informed. It may well be that The Independent wanted a news story to accompany an op-ed piece entitled "Comment: Case for assisted dying is overwhelming", but I am hard pressed to tell which is news story and which is the special pleading of one of the parties.

The story opens with:

Britain's right-to die laws are "barbaric and inhumane" a paralysed man said after three of the country's most senior judges today rejected his appeal to be allowed assistance to help him end his own life.

Paul Lamb, 57, has spent the past 23 years receiving round-the-clock care following a car crash which left him with only a tiny degree of movement in his right arm. He said politicians were "scared to death" to bring the UK in line with other countries where assisted suicide was legal.

Having framed the story in terms of the feelings of one of the appellants the article states:

Mr Lamb said he had no plans to take his life at present. But he said: "I am doing this for myself as and when I need it. I'm doing it for thousands of other people living what can only be described as a hell. Many of them have been in touch with me begging me to continue this fight. The more it goes on the stronger I am getting," he said.

This case tells us a great deal about the opinions of Paul Lamb and the British Humanist Association. It is not until the very last paragraph of the story that we hear the voice of someone who believes the court decidedly wisely. And we hear almost nothing as to what the court said and why it said it. It was not as if the opinion lacked pull quotes. Paragraph 155 of the decision addresses the issues of judicial activism:

Parliament represents the conscience of the nation. Judges, however eminent, do not: our responsibility is to discover the relevant legal principles, and apply the law as we find it. We cannot suspend or dispense with primary legislation. In our constitutional arrangements such powers do not exist.

While paragraph 156 notes:

The legislation criminalising assisting suicide was recent and unequivocal; and even if it were constitutionally permissible (which it was not) for judges to intervene on the basis that Parliament had failed to address a desperately urgent social need, Parliament had not in fact done so in this particular case.

Facts and sober analysis are of secondary interest to the human interest story of Paul Lamb.  There is no balance, no nuance, no research, no context, no curiosity in this article. Nor is there any reference to the wider intellectual and theological debate taking place in Britain and across Europe on this issue.

I am not surprised, however, at this omission by The Independent. In an editorial printed last week on the Archbishop of Canterbury's campaign to end predatory lending, the newspaper argued religion has no place in the public square.

The question is neither Archbishop Welby’s motivations nor his capabilities; as a former oil executive and a member of the mettlesome Commission on Banking Standards, he has both the background and the acuity to make an informed contribution. The question is whether he should do so.

For The Independent, even when we agree with him, the answer must be no. For all his fine qualities – many of which were on display in yesterday’s gracious, candid response to the Wonga embarrassment – Archbishop Welby is still the unelected leader of a minority institution which enjoys disproportionate influence on the basis of history alone. His efforts to reclaim the initiative and make the Church relevant again are understandable. But they are also erroneous.

This is no swipe at religion, but such matters are a private affair, and spiritual leaders – for all the authority they may have among their own – have no business in mainstream politics. That bishops still sit in the House of Lords is an anachronism that makes a mockery of British democracy. If Archbishop Welby wishes the Church of England to support credit unions, it is his prerogative to act accordingly, but there his legitimacy ends.

As an aside, the poor old CoE can't seem to catch a break from the press.  When it questioned the policies of Margaret Thatcher conservative newspapers mouthed the same "religion is a private affair and has no place in politics" line. Now it is the left's turn to take up the mantra.

The Independent has adopted an editorial line and carried it forward in its reporting that religion has no standing in the public square -- that it is irrelevant to the life of the mind, to politics, to law and the social contract. Yet should not a newspaper report the whole of an issue, not merely those arguments and issues it finds congenial?

The result for journalism of this closed mind worldview can be seen in this article.

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