Thursday, 5 January 2012

The dissenting voice

Tucked away in the BBC's website report of today's campaigning report of assisted dying was a sentence which caught my eye. "However, one of the 11 commissioners, Reverend Canon Dr James Woodward, disagreed with the conclusion." I'd corresponded with him last year after my somewhat intemperate refusal to give evidence to the "commission", and apologised for tarring all the commission with the brush of prejudice at the outset. I've made no secret of my feelings about the whole exercise, but I have to say that Dr Woodward's statement in Appendix 3 of the lengthy report repays reading and for me is its redeeming conclusion. It can't have been easy to differ from the majority vote. 
He seems to me to have identified important issues, in particular breaking our society's taboo of discussion of death and dying, and having a broader debate about the kind of society we want to live in before thinking of changing any so fundamental law.
"As set out in the executive summary to this report, I do not feel able to put my name and support to the more specific recommendations that are made in chapters 11 and 12 of this report concerning the majority decision of the Commission that the present law could be changed to allow assisted dying in restricted circumstances. I support the coherence, rigour and quality of this work and hope that it will be read and used as a basis for further research, work and public debate. I regret that some have felt unable to contribute to the process of discussion, engagement and listening that has characterised the process. I wish to continue to work with my fellow Commission members to promote a deeper and wiser dialogue that moves away from polarised and entrenched positions on assisted dying that are incapable of listening to a wide range of issues and experience.
"In our work it has become clear that there are significant difficulties with the present law. My visit to Switzerland to learn something of the law and practice there raised many more questions about the way a culture views and values life, death and the freedom to choose. However this complex and contested area of human life cannot be dealt with through the law or medicine alone. We need to engage further with the social and ethical reflections on experiences of death and dying. The ethical debate is not over and it is the responsibility of all ‘sides’ of the debate to listen more carefully to the questions and concerns of one another.
"Further there are important theological questions about suffering, personhood and the value of the vulnerable that need to inform a more open conversation about death and dying in Britain today. I am particularly concerned about the adequacy of UK health and social care where dignity and compassion are values that are universally affirmed but often not part of the day to day practice of those who are tasked to care.
"In conclusion I believe that a broader societal debate is required before any attempt is made to move to a change in the law on assisted dying. As a society we need to bring all our collective wisdom to bear on these questions in an open and honest fashion. I understand that my particular view is a minority one and I both respect and admire my fellow Commissioners in their views and recommendations. I hope that the report will be read carefully — it is an important contribution to the debate."
I have written to thank him, and I very much hope his thoughtful voice will be listened to. Meanwhile, in response to my last post, Sally, a doctor friend of ours, could have begun part of the discussion with this powerful message: "Years ago, while working in a hospice, I admitted a patient who was in agony having had totally inadequate analgesia in a prior hospital. His wife was screaming at me to end his life, and he was rolling around in agony, but within in a short time he was sound asleep with good analgesia. He slept for about three days having been completely exhausted by being left in severe pain. He eventually woke up and subsequently had a good death. 
There is such a thing as a good death, but death is remote and almost taboo in contemporary society. We should not abdicate responsibility for striving for excellence in palliative and terminal care. We should not turn doctors into executioners. This is not a religious discussion. Civilised secular society has a role in addressing the concept of a good death which has no need whatsoever to involve killing."


  1. Hello,
    I thought of you yesterday when I heard the news and again when I listened to "Thought for the Day". I thought he was the person who resigned from St. Pauls. I guessed you would have responded to the developments in your blog. The whole issue of "choice" cannot be viewed in isolation for as we often told folk with learning disabilities - with 'choice' comes 'responsibility'. No man is an island regardless of how they see themselves or what circumstances they might find themselves in.
    Nice to see that you are keeping up the good work, I shall e-mail separately. Assuming this gets through!

  2. Today's excellent Thought for the Day was given by Giles Fraser (who was indeed the St Paul's Canon). Canon Woodward is at St George's Windsor. According to the Church Times his view was formed visiting Dignitas. See You're right about choice AND responsibility, Rob.