A voice for the non-religious in Swindon

“Human decency is not derived from religion. It precedes it.” ― Christopher Hitchens

An open letter to Robert Buckland MP: The Assisted Dying Bill

Dear Mr.Buckland,

We are writing this letter to once again urge you to reconsider your position on the Assisted Dying Bill which is due to be voted upon on September 11th 2015. Several of us from Swindon Humanists have discussed or corresponded with you about this before, and we fully understand and agree with your statement that it is entirely possible for people to hold widely different but defensible opinions regarding assisted dying. We do however believe strongly that supporting the Bill is the right option, which is also where the vast majority of public opinion lies.
We would firstly like to remind you of just some of the many arguments in favour of this position:
1) Having the option of assisted dying can provide reassurance to people who are in the final stages of a terminal illness; that they will be able to call a halt to their suffering if they so wish – even if they don’t actually come to do so in the end.
2) Without the option of an assisted death, people may well end up dying sooner than they would otherwise do, especially in the cases of those travelling abroad as they will have to be fit enough to make the journey, possibly alone, and this clearly means they would have to do so long before the true final stages of their life.
3) Not having the option of assisted death forces some people to attempt suicide, sometimes unsuccessfully, sometimes alone to ensure their family cannot be prosecuted, and sometimes in long, drawn out ways such as starving themselves to death.
4) Voluntary and non-voluntary euthanasia is already practiced in the UK, but it happens outside the law and therefore without any safeguards. In 2009 Professor Clive Seale published research which found that a ‘significant minority’ of doctors reported making decisions that they think will hasten the death of a patient. In 9.8% of those cases patients verbally expressed a request for the end of their life to be hastened. There should be real transparency about this which should start by having the law reflect the reality.
5) It is quite clear from polling data and the fact that the DPP has not thought it in the public interest to prosecute a single person who has helped someone travel abroad to have an assisted death, that the current law does not reflect societies standards of compassion.
6) Just as abortion and homosexuality, both legalised in 1967, are not compulsory, the legalisation of assisted dying would also not make it compulsory. No one is forcing it on anyone else, but opponents are forcing their views on those who would choose it for themselves.
There are of course also many arguments against, but we firmly believe they either fail to address the Bill itself or are contradicted by evidence:
1) If this Bill is passed it would lead to further steps to enable a wider set of people to access assisted dying, or that it would inevitably lead to the legalisation of assisted suicide or euthanasia.
The analogy of a ‘slippery slope’ is a bad one, because even if this Bill is passed, and even if campaigns then started up to extend it, the same process would have to be gone through to amend the law again. Considering it has taken 80 odd years since the first assisted dying Bill, and we still don’t have one, despite public opinion, I think the idea that that system would then allow a headlong rush in the opposite direction is faintly ridiculous. And it isn’t an argument against what is in the Bill.
The evidence available to us to address this argument is that in the 18 years assisted dying has been legal in Oregon (the Death With Dignity Act of 1994, which the current Bill to be voted upon is closely based) there have been no calls to extend the law beyond terminally ill, mentally competent adults. So to date, the slippery slope has been considerably more sticky and less steep than feared. Also worth noting is there has been a steady but small increase in the numbers of DWDA deaths over those 18 years, from 16 in 1998 to 71 in 2013, however as a proportion of deaths in the state this equates to roughly 0.2%, a figure that has remained steady for the last several years.
2) Allowing assisted dying would harm investment, development and access to palliative care.
Oregon statistics show that the vast majority of people who have an assisted death were in receipt of hospice care; showing both that the option is clearly there and that palliative care alone is not a complete solution in all cases. The claim that palliative care would suffer if assisted dying is legal is, in the case of Oregon, shown to be false as Oregon has among the best palliative care of the fifty states in the US and the proportion of people dying in hospice care has more than doubled since the Death With Dignity Act was introduced. Further to that evidence, a 2011 report by the European Association of Palliative Care came to this conclusion:

“The idea that legislation of euthanasia and/or assisted suicide might obstruct or halt palliative care development thus seems unwarranted and is only expressed in commentaries rather than demonstrated by empirical evidence”.

3) Vulnerable people may be consciously or unconsciously coerced into ending their lives for the benefit of others.
We think this is undoubtedly the argument that we would consider the most important. Again, there is evidence we have that may help us to address it. But the first response to this argument would simply be to say that in hospitals here, and in foreign clinics, people already get assistance to die and there are little or no safeguards in place to address this specific concern. Surely it would be better to bring those situations within the law and apply those important safeguards and, if you believe the safeguards in the Bill are not sufficient, to assist in improving them rather than rejecting the entire Bill at this early stage.
A report published by the Journal of Medical Ethics in 2011 looked at assisted dying in Oregon and also the Netherlands, specifically at evidence concerning the impact on patients in ‘vulnerable groups’, assessing the concern of a ’slippery slope’, predicting abuse of people in vulnerable groups. From Oregon it looked at all the annual reports and three independent studies and from the Netherlands it looked at four government commissioned studies of end-of-life decision making (from 1990 – 2005). Evidence of any disproportionate impact on 10 groups of potentially vulnerable patients was sought.
The results of the study were that the rates of assisted dying in Oregon and in the Netherlands showed no evidence of heightened risk for the elderly, women, the uninsured, people with low educational status, the poor, the physically disabled or chronically ill, minors, people with psychiatric illnesses including depression, or racial or ethnic minorities, compared with background populations. The only group with a heightened risk was people with AIDS.
In 9 years in Oregon, a total of six persons with AIDS died under the DWDA; although the numbers are small, persons with AIDS were 30 times more likely to use assisted dying than those who died of chronic respiratory disorders. So there would seem to me to be a good reason there to look deeper into the possible causes of that highlighted risk. However, the conclusion of the Journal of Medical Ethics report states that where assisted dying is already legal, there is no current evidence for the claim that legalised physician assisted suicide or euthanasia will have disproportionate impact on patients in vulnerable groups.
4) It devalues human life and violates the sanctity of human life.
This argument surely depends on how you value human life to begin with. As long-time campaigner Baroness Mary Warnock said in a debate “being alive is not something to value in itself” and by that she means it’s the quality of that life and how that life is lived that matters, not the brute fact of being alive. The use of the term ‘sanctity of human life’ is common from religious opponents to assisted dying and while they make the same valuable arguments as anyone else, solely religious or theological arguments are not relevant. The majority of people in the UK are not religious. It would be wrong to impose a solely religious or theological view on those who don’t subscribe to that way of thinking. As an example of the type of view that should never be imposed, here is a quote from Pope John Paul the second. In 1995 he said:

“According to Christian teaching, suffering, especially suffering during the last moments of life, has a special place in God’s saving plan; it is in fact a sharing in Christ’s passion and a union with the redeeming sacrifice which He offered in obedience to the Father’s will”.


However, as mentioned earlier, polling of religious people shows they largely reject the official position of their churches and in fact many religious officials speak out in favour of assisted dying. Even the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, changed his mind from opposition to support in advance of the House of Lords debate in July of this year. In that debate he said:

“As to those who chide me – and they have – by saying that my argument and change of heart are light on theological backing, let me tell them what my theology is all about. It is about accompanying those very sick and dying people to that place where they feel most abandoned […] and where they need us to be with them to help find peace of mind and to help them on that journey. If that is not theology of the best and purest kind, I do not know what is.”

6) The Bill would help to devalue disabled people. This argument was made very strongly in the House of Lords debate in July by Baroness Campbell and Baroness Grey-Thompson, both of whom are disabled. While we understand how important it is that disabled people are not discriminated against in any way, the Bill does not deal with people with disabilities. As polls show that the majority of disabled people are in favour of assisted dying, they appear to be ignoring the opinions of the group they wish to represent.
We at Swindon Humanists accept the difficulty of this debate that is so clearly not a black and white issue, but we feel that both from an empirical standpoint and a moral one, the right choice is to support the Bill. We very much hope that you will consider these arguments once more and agree (as your fellow Conservative and Swindon North MP Justin Tomlinson does). As Professor Raymond Tallis says:

“Unbearable suffering, prolonged by medical care and inflicted on a dying patient who wishes to die, is unequivocally a bad thing. From this it follows that not doing (or, worse still, prohibiting) what has to be done to prevent this is unacceptable cruelty. “


Yours sincerely,

Swindon Humanist Committee:
Neil Davies
Jo Garton
Belinda Neal
Fred Pound
Nikki Dancey
Andy Bentley
Andrew Whitford
Chris Eley


6 comments on “An open letter to Robert Buckland MP: The Assisted Dying Bill

  1. Hi, I read your open letter to Robert Buckland MP this morning over coffee and toast and wondered why this would be a subject of interest to humanists. I’m off to work in an hour so I beg your forgiveness if my thoughts are somewhat scattered and incomplete but I would personally find the euthanasia debate a minefield for humanists and atheists alike. Again my expressions of reasoning may be lacking, but I wanted to bring up a few points before heading off.

    Assisted suicide is by nature a moral act. It’s clear that the patient who desires to make that decision for themselves, is making a decision by their own free will. There is little argument against someone choosing for themselves to end their lives ‘early’, unless the person is one mentally incapacitated, which is opening a can of worms itself as that point could be argued from either side of the debate. Or secondly a religious point of contention which we can leave for another day. The real dilemma concerns the person(s) people assisting in the act.

    To assist in another’s demise by contract assumes that the person assisting has no qualms with being an active participant in another’s death.

    In psychological terms we could easily argue that this person is a sociopath. A sociopath being defined as noun: a person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience.

    It could be easily argued that assisting in death is both antisocial and lacks conscience. But it’s the conscience part of the discussion I’d most like to address.

    Assisting in another’s death is wholly an act of conscience. The sticky part is whose conscience exactly? Under what circumstances? Under whose dictates, including that days popular or unpopular political ruling class or ruler, be it a king or a dictator who oft times functions under no ones conscience than their own and who in recent history (dictators I’m speaking of here) whose conscience has driven them to exterminated tens if not hundreds of millions of innocents.

    A quick internet search on the definition of conscience is as follows: noun
    1. an inner feeling or voice viewed as acting as a guide to the rightness or wrongness of one’s behavior.
    “he had a guilty conscience about his desires”
    2. sense of right and wrong, moral sense, inner voice; morals, standards, values, principles, ethics, beliefs: compunction, scruples, qualms “her conscience would not allow her to remain silent”

    If assisting in the death of another it is not an act of conscience it is by definition sociopathic. If it is an act of conscience, then it is wholly predicated on morals, standards, values, principles, ethics… the list goes on.

    So where does right or wrong derive it’s nature? What are morals, values, principles and what makes them truly right or wrong? The society on one island may have no problem with their conscience in attacking killing and eating their enemies, where a man on another island may find it irrepressible. Whose to say then the right or wrong of the issue? Societal norms can at some point overtime devolve under the right or wrong circumstances, motivations, and leadership who at some point have tossed conscience to the rubbish heap. Some would call that having a ‘seared conscience’. In each case those societies, from the Aztecs on, have fallen into nothing but a historical footnote presumably stemming from what we would call ‘a lack of conscience’.

    So from a historical view point a lack of conscience (sociopathy), or progressing towards a societal lack of conscience has been less than ‘progressive’, in it’s inevitable march to self destruction.

    Finally, conscience by nature cannot be in argued as being biological. It is not a product of evolution (as societies that lack it self destruct- anti evolutionary). It is not an act of the human mind as a cellular mass is wholly physiological. Conscience is therefore outside of the biological domain.

    You know this is headed already. The act of assisting in the death of others is therefore a purely moral choice, or an act of conscience, thereby making it intellectually inconsistent with both humanistic or atheistic thought.

    I’d like to discuss this in more detail at some point, but I need to run. Be well! Noel Goetz Banning, CA USA

    • Neil Davies
      September 9, 2015

      Well, thanks for the reply Noel – perhaps unsurprisingly I disagree with it and also find it baffling why you think the subject somehow unsuitable for atheists or humanists.

      Firstly, I disagree with your premise that a person assisting another’s death would have no qualms about it. I feel certain the exact opposite is true, it is far more likely to be considered the most compassionate choice of a few very difficult options, all of which having consequences that anyone would have significant qualms about. To suggest that people who have had to make such harrowing decisions are sociopaths or lacking in conscience is ridiculous and insulting.

      Secondly, your claim that the human conscience is somehow nothing to do with evolution, biology or the brain is completely incorrect. Religion has always and no doubt will always try to claim morality for itself, but that’s simply not the case. For one example of a good book about what current neuroscience says about morality, read ‘Braintrust’ by Patricia Churchland.

      Finally, given my thoughts on those two points, isn’t it obvious humanists such as myself would have a strong interest in assisted dying? It’s something that could easily affect any one of us and probably will affect most of us, either directly or because of friends or relatives. Your suggestion that non-religious people can’t contribute to the debate in an intellectually consistent way is also very insulting. Morality is not the sole purview of the religious, thank goodness. The conclusion that this is the only life we have and there is no afterlife has a great influence on how you view this debate. How could it not?

      • My apologies I didn’t mean to insult or to say that humanists and atheists have no stake in assisted suicide on a personal level (which when re-reading what I’d written, it certainly sounded like) but for the sake of clarification please note that it was immediately followed with “but I would personally find the euthanasia debate a minefield for humanists and atheists alike.” (The mine-field analogy was my thought- again my sincere apology). Neither did I say that non-religious people couldn’t contribute on an intellectually consistent way (depending on what we would agree is intellectually consistent). My points (as I made clear) were a based on the basis of conscience, not intellect.

        Because you read a book that that I’m sure is rife with inference and indicators ‘with no solid proof’ of the conscience being a result of a biological confluence is highly suspect, as I’m sure that ‘no clinical absolutes linking the two’ were put forth. In my world they call that a ‘faith-based’ argument. There are thousands if not tens of thousands of books that conclude that it is beyond the physical. I didn’t claim that atheists (speaking as a former atheist myself) or humanists weren’t moral people either, or that it was ‘the religious’ that had sole ownership of what is clearly a trait found to some extent in ‘every human being’. (Nor do I think I made a single religious point). My argument as you well know, is that you can’t reasonably ‘prove’ that the conscience (if we can agree on the terminology) is a biological function. You have to do alot of contorting to explain on a scientific basis, something, that is to most reasoning people, while exhibiting itself in the physical realm, it operates by a different set of perimeters (laws). I think it would be more intellectually honest to say- ‘I’m not really sure why’, or, ‘It’s a mystery’. But a tenant of closely held personal beliefs ie: ‘your religion’ says you must be able to explain or have a scientific basis, no matter how weak or improvable, for everything you can’t readily explain, and that you are given personal license to ‘intentionally’ refrain from exploring- which in itself is an intellectually dishonest pursuit, considering the (dare I say it) the daily experiences of people since the beginning of recorded history who claim an inseparable spiritual link to the physical realm. But instead you poo-poo it with a wave of the hand, and turn a blind eye to these BILLIONS upon BILLIONS who if it weren’t for a certain amount of prejudice and fear, would at least (yes in intellectual honesty) explore for the sake validation or in-validation- to prove or disprove, these claims yourself without leaning on the ‘research’ of another. You don’t need a text book to look up into the sky and ask ‘Hey god or whatever you call yourself! Are you really up there? Do you really exist? I hear alot of well intentioned but mindless fools claiming you do. I’m doing some research down here and I’m seeking an honest answer with no preconceived outcome expected on my part, I’d like to hear from you. So please, don’t just stand there, prove yourself! BTW I’ll be standing by in case you have something to say!” Gee, that would take all of but one minute? If no spiritual exists (you only hear crickets in response) then in the interest of research alone, what is there to fear? I’m asking a real question here in case ‘you’re listening’. What if the missing piece of the puzzle is right in front of you but you’re too afraid of what the answer might be? Maybe you won’t get a signal or sign or have a bible dropped on your head. But you could at least claim that you sought an answer with real honest intent. None of us who have asked that question and received an answer have exploded into that million tiny pieces. No we are human. We ‘are not’ less scientific, most of us ‘thankfully’ don’t cut off peoples heads. We love and give and hope the best for others (even those we disagree with) we take joy in others and in this universe and we, just as you, claim a conscience except that we believe it originated came from outside the physical universe. So I’ve laid down the gauntlet. Challenge yourself with the simplest, yet most difficult and pride-less exercise, any human seeking truth can do, and invite or (if your are so inclined) challenge who/what most of us call god. Then your intellectual suitcase will be filled with personal research as well as scientific study and once having completed your research you have a personal platform with which to make your argument. There are those who having done so, that will deny the spiritual, but at least they ventured, sought, and came to a conclusion that in the far greater sense, intellectually honest.

  2. Neil Davies
    September 9, 2015

    The theory that the mind is the product of the brain is the precise opposite of a faith based position, it is a conclusion based on evidence. There are thousands of papers in many fields of science to attest to that. If you want to simply ignore that, or reject it for your own definitively faith based opinion, that’s up to you. It’s not very convincing. Maybe you should read the book rather than assuming its contents?

    As for your challenge, you make the rather strange assumption that I haven’t already done all that. Which would be incorrect. Thanks for your time 🙂

    • I wish I had time to read the book however, chances are unless written in simple laymen’s terms I’d just struggle through it (not an excuse- just a reality). As for my challenge, it was loosely based on the vehement defense of your argument, though you are correct that I shouldn’t have assumed anything in that regard. However, I think mentioning it or writing about your experience would be(if for just information’s sake only) a benefit to others, as human experience holds great value. Some of course greater to some verses others).

      As for conscience being a product of the mind, and the number of papers written in regards to that, I think it salient to venture the question, how many of those authors did or did not (in your opinion) have a strongly religious or spiritual orientation or life style when authoring those papers, or could some of these be a case of trying to back up a personally held belief (by the way science is so often found not to be as objective as some make it out to be)? Or maybe that question can’t be answered due to a lack of information. They probably didn’t think that had anything to do with the question however pertinent that may be. Considering the subject matter, papers or no papers (there’s a lot of paper out there- some of which I blow my nose on) the number of papers written on a subject is certainly cannot lead one to a ‘truism’ as there probably have been what may amount to millions of papers authored on spirituality, so in a war of paper to paper you may have a disadvantage. A truly moral and honest person welcomes good science. All that to say as proven out in government,’you can make numbers say anything you want to’. It’sin interpreting those numbers (the human quotient) that sometimes conflict with outcomes. Look at all the pharmaceuticals that have maimed killed or injured based on bad interpretation ie: True science is good. Bad science is far worse.

      The important question is of course, are either of our assertions provable in the ‘scientific-repeatable, numerical or formulaic’ sense or are they anecdotal in nature? If they are anecdotal, my personal life is replete with anecdotal evidence regarding the spiritual. And it’s at this juncture where the rubber meets the road. At the very least they may have equal validity and if this is so, ‘one outta two ain’t bad odd’s’ 🙂

      So if one were claim spirituality as a motivating factor in how they live out their lives, I take it you believe that they are either deluded or are plagued with an abnormality or possess an atrocious lack of understanding. How is it then that most spiritual or (for lack of a better term) religious people, who were once as you are, who now believe in the spiritual, had this weakness pop into their lives? Was it a virus? And after attaining a spiritual out-look and living it for many number of years have been transformed (proven by actions) and become more moral, with a greater sense of conscience? By what formula do we pass around those facts?

      Considering the vast amount of good compared to evil brought into the world by religious/spiritual people verses the vast amount of death brought into the world by dictators who claim there is no spiritual/god, based on pure numbers those who are motivated by the spiritual (including faiths that I personally find incoherent) win the argument hands down. For example, name a popular tenant of Christianity today that actively brings physical harm to others? Yes, some may claim that they have been emotionally harmed or feel persecuted (which I am not dismissing and wish were not the case) but show where there is physical harm. You won’t find it. But you will find an atheistic dictator in North Korea that systematically starves and imprisons it populace as a natural result of a noticeable vacuum of spirituality replaced by aberrancy, greed and pleasure. In science, doesn’t a void ‘generally’ necessitate it being filled? And in the same manner if there is no good filling that void, what is sure to replace it? Gray? Gray is dangerous.

      I’m sure you have many arguments to the opposite, and of course will live out your life based on those beliefs. But which will hold up in the light of history? That is the question.

      Practically speaking though, if I were to wash up a stranger on that proverbial beach on a far-away island, and I had to choose the beliefs of it’s inhabitants- either a colony of flesh eaters, or a congregation of Presbyterians, when it came down to it, though the Presbyterians might bore you to death, at least they wouldn’t eat you. 🙂

      No, explain it away as hard as you might, isn’t it true at it’s most basic level that if a conscience is a product of the brain/mind, condemning a man for a lack of morals would be akin to blaming someone with Downs syndrome for being born deficient? No, I think all men are born with a conscience and many live happily without ever making a leap to what some call spirituality. But to try and claim it’s a bodily function is to diminish the good that has come from those who adhere to a belief that teaches that we are ‘to do unto others that which you would have done unto you.’

      I’m done here. I enjoy reading your blog. You offer idea’s that stretch all of us to consider why we believe, what we believe, and that allows us the opportunity to formulate an objective reason for either believing it or rejecting it, which in my view is always a good thing. Again I offended you by my earlier post, and extend the hand of good-will, asking your forgiveness and forbearance. Noel Goetz

  3. Neil Davies
    September 10, 2015

    So much catastrophic misunderstanding of science, philosophy, history and indeed religion there to even begin to reply… not that it would do any good anyway. C’est la vie.

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This entry was posted on September 8, 2015 by in Assisted dying, Humanism, NHS, Swindon.

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