SCOTLAND: Churches worried about assisted suicide 'guidelines'

November 11, 2009

Leaders from Anglican, Protestant and Roman Catholic churches have met Scotland's First Minister Alex Salmond to discuss concerns about regulations on assisted suicide in neighboring England and Wales. Meeting with Salmond at the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh on Nov. 4 were members of the country's two biggest churches, the (Presbyterian) Church of Scotland and the Catholic Church, as well as the Scottish Episcopal Church. In September, the Kirk, as the Church of Scotland is known, had expressed concerns about regulations on assisted suicide in England and Wales as it was being debated in Scotland. The Catholic Church has long been strongly opposed to any form of suicide. The Rev. Alexander Horsburgh, vice convener of the Kirk's Church and Society Council, said in an interview with Ecumenical News International, "As a church we are against assisted suicide. But we believe there should be constructive debate on the subject in the Scottish Parliament." The new guidelines issued in London in September by the director of public prosecutions stated that anyone who helps a terminally ill family member to die will only be prosecuted if the police can prove they stood to gain financially from the death. Scotland has its own legal system, but Horsburgh fears that the new guidelines for England and Wales will set a precedent for changes in Scottish law. "The Church of Scotland remains very concerned these guidelines will have the consequence of making some of our most vulnerable citizens even more vulnerable," said Horsburgh. "We remain opposed to assisted suicide and do not want to see any moves to normalize it." In July, Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, who heads the Church of England, Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks and Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster Vincent Nichols issued a joint statement expressing opposition to any change in the law on assisted suicide. They spoke of their fears that vulnerable people would feel under pressure to end their lives and relieve the burden on family if assisted suicide were to be decriminalized. The updated guidelines on assisted suicide came after the a legal committee of Britain's upper House of Parliament, the Law Lords, backed calls for clarity on whether people who help someone commit suicide should be prosecuted. The Labour Party's Lord Falconer of Thornton hailed the guidelines as a "very, very significant step," noting the law had "unquestionably changed." However, Phyllis Bowman, executive officer of Right to Life, called the guidelines "a scandal ... which in effect will make it legal to assist a suicide." The Christian Nurses and Midwives association expressed its opposition to assisted suicide in July 2009 and there are calls that debate should be opened on the subject in Britain's lower House of Commons. However, Liberal Democrat lawmaker Evan Harris told the Daily Telegraph newspaper on Aug. 11 that such a move is unlikely. "We are a rare democracy when the government and the church work to prevent the public's elected representatives from debating such matters," he said.