Desmond Tutu, archbishop emeritus of Cape Town and a Nobel Peace laureate, has some thoughts on a person's right to dignity at the end of life that are worth considering. 

Desmond Tutu is something of a living legend (there's a fuller account of his life here). Long a prominent opposition voice to South Africa's apartheid policies, for which he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984, he then played an important role in trying to heal the national wounds caused by that struggle when Nelson Mandela subsequently appointed him to chair the nation's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Even more importantly, he's a big rugby fan with a healthy respect for the All Blacks (and you can watch him talking about the effect of protests in NZ against South Africa's 1981 rugby tour here.)

So, against that background, his opinion piece in the Washington Post reiterating his support for allowing people to have end of life choice is noteworthy. I don't think he'd mind me copying and pasting it here in full for you to read:

Throughout my life, I have been fortunate to have spent my time working for dignity for the living. I have campaigned passionately for people in my country and the world over to have their God-given rights.

Now, as I turn 85, with my life closer to its end than its beginning, I wish to help give people dignity in dying. Just as I have argued firmly for compassion and fairness in life, I believe that terminally ill people should be treated with the same compassion and fairness when it comes to their deaths.

Dying people should have the right to choose how and when they leave Mother Earth. I believe that, alongside the wonderful palliative care that exists, their choices should include a dignified assisted death.

There have been promising developments as of late in California and Canada, where the law now allows assisted dying for terminally ill people, but there are still many thousands of dying people across the world who are denied their right to die with dignity.

Two years ago, I announced the reversal of my lifelong opposition to assisted dying in an op-ed in the Guardian. But I was more ambiguous about whether I personally wanted the option, writing: "I would say I wouldn't mind."

Today, I myself am even closer to the departures hall than arrivals, so to speak, and my thoughts turn to how I would like to be treated when the time comes. Now, more than ever, I feel compelled to lend my voice to this cause.

I believe in the sanctity of life. I know that we will all die and that death is a part of life. Terminally ill people have control over their lives, so why should they be refused control over their deaths? Why are so many instead forced to endure terrible pain and suffering against their wishes?

I have prepared for my death and have made it clear that I do not wish to be kept alive at all costs. I hope I am treated with compassion and allowed to pass on to the next phase of life's journey in the manner of my choice.

Regardless of what you might choose for yourself, why should you deny others the right to make this choice? For those suffering unbearably and coming to the end of their lives, merely knowing that an assisted death is open to them can provide immeasurable comfort.

I welcome anyone who has the courage to say, as a Christian, that we should give dying people the right to leave this world with dignity. My friend Lord Carey, the former archbishop of Canterbury, has passionately argued for an assisted-dying law in Britain. His initiative has my blessing and support – as do similar initiatives in my home country, South Africa, throughout the United States and across the globe.

In refusing dying people the right to die with dignity, we fail to demonstrate the compassion that lies at the heart of Christian values. I pray that politicians, lawmakers and religious leaders have the courage to support the choices terminally ill citizens make in departing Mother Earth.

The time to act is now.

Comments (9)

by Graham Adams on October 08, 2016
Graham Adams

The palliative aspect of assisted dying — even if the lethal medicine is not used, as is often the case — is generally overlooked by opponents: 

"For those suffering unbearably and coming to the end of their lives, merely knowing that an assisted death is open to them can provide immeasurable comfort."

Thanks for posting this, Andrew.


by Nick Gibbs on October 13, 2016
Nick Gibbs

The bishop argues for the right to die with dignity and suggests that the terminally ill are those who should be given this right. The flip side has always been Belgium's policy which is to legalise suicide full stop. While I can understand the valid request of the terminally ill, its this slippery slope towards I fear. 

The Netherland's which introduced legally assisted dying with tight provisions is starting to loosen these.

Just where is the bottom of this slope? I think the bishop is embracing sentiment rather than clear thought here.


by Graham Adams on October 14, 2016
Graham Adams

@ Nick

Belgium has expanded its criteria since introducing voluntary euthanasia but Oregon hasn’t over 20 years. It started as being for the terminally ill and it has remained that way. The opponents of assisted dying always return to Belgium as their example, but, like Oregon, New Zealand can choose strict criteria and stick to them. Opponents also fail to mention that Canada and recently the state of Victoria investigated the alleged slippery slope and found no evidence of one. As did the Economist magazine, which is campaigning for legislative change.

by Nick Gibbs on October 16, 2016
Nick Gibbs

Oregon is a good case in hand for assisted dying, as is Holland. However the point of the Guardian article is that Holland may not be in that category for long.

by Graham Adams on October 16, 2016
Graham Adams

@ Nick

I've always thought that fears about the "slippery slope" were that the criteria for assisted dying would be expanded surreptitiously, and beyond the scope of the law (or at least that's what opponents of assisted dying seem to imply). But the Guardian article makes it clear that this is being done by a law change and that "the euthanasia policy has widespread backing in Dutch society". As Oregon has shown, law changes to widen the eligible categories of suffering are not inevitable.

by Nick Gibbs on October 16, 2016
Nick Gibbs

I regard the slippery slope as slowly adjusting the law to allow a wider and wider group to become eligible to commit suicide. I think once assisted dying is legalised then individuals and groups would soon push to extend that right further and further. The Netherlands is now pushing down this road. Meanwhile Oregon is just a state of the US. Is the reason no movement has been made down the slippery slope because the rest of the US and the Supreme Court acts as a hand brake?

by Graham Adams on October 16, 2016
Graham Adams

@ Nick 

But opposing the introduction of assisted dying laws because "If we give them an inch they'll take a mile" implies societies shouldn't have the right to change their laws as public attitudes change. And all the evidence is that the laws in Belgium and the Netherlands have the overwhelming backing of their citizens. It's not the result of a plot or conspiracy forced on them. At heart, that argument for denying legislative change is that people don't know what's best for them and need to be stopped early on. It's anti-democratic and paternalistic.

by Nick Gibbs on October 17, 2016
Nick Gibbs

So there is a slope and it could be slippery? Good to know because I'd like to think through the consequences thoroughly before going on that ride. 

"It's not the result of a plot or conspiracy forced on them." is this true?

While changes may not be forced on the public, have all agendas been made clear. I suspect that some groups will argue passionately that its all about the terminally ill but following legislative success immediately push for the right for unlimited access to assisted suicide for all. If there is such an agenda I don't want it obscured. Instead I want a fully informed debate to take place where what's at stake is clearly articulated and not simply spun away.

I'm not anti-democratic as I'm not asking for democracy to be suspended but for groups to make their agendas clear and then for the vote to take place.

As a person who has been involved with someone who battles mental illness I worry about the vulnerable being given the right to kill themselves. There are others in society who would be made vulnerable as well. If that makes me paternalistic, so be it. I prefer to think of myself as "thoughtful".

by Graham Adams on October 17, 2016
Graham Adams

I don't think a slope — slippery or otherwise — is inevitable, again as Oregon shows. Of course, people will push for different things on any question; it doesn't mean society has to grant them their wishes by changing the law. And while opponents of legislative change worry about possible harms, real harms are being endured right now by those dying in intense pain. 

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