What I learned from talking to passers-by outside Parliament as peers debated the Assisted Dying Bill

I got an email from a friend over the weekend. She wrote of renewing contact with an old mate of hers with whom she had lost touch for many years. He had been in a long-term same-sex partnership. He now has an Aids-related illness and is completely isolated and wants to die. Indeed, he is trying to summon up the courage to kill himself. He has no religious faith to sustain him. As this came hard on the heels of the debate on Friday in the House of Lords about Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill, I found an immediate connection between the two.

Indeed, as someone remarked to me on Friday as I stood alongside others wearing “Care not killing” T-shirts and displaying banners with “Disabled People say NO to Falconer” outside the House of Lords: “Why is Lord Falconer’s Bill only referring to those with six months or less to live? What about those with long-term serious and debilitating illness or those who are deeply depressed? They will want the right to be killed too and there is no logical reason why they shouldn’t have it.” It struck me that the man described above is really dying of loneliness rather than an Aids-related illness. If you don’t feel you are loved, what is the point of life? Again, as has been pointed out often, it is easy to feel a burden when you are old, weak or very sick and do “not want to impose on others”.

I had some interesting exchanges with people passing by on the pavement as I handed out leaflets explaining the real issues behind this supposedly “compassionate” Bill. One was with a delightful Albanian man, who spoke in halting English of his passionately pro-life views. I mentioned Mother Teresa to him (she was of Albanian origin) and his face lit up. A Norwegian lady told me her mother’s end-of-life care in a Home in Norway was very bad; it seems Norway has very few hospices. A Belgian woman, once a Catholic now a Mormon and living in Edinburgh, told me Mormons are pro-life too. A young Chinese man, an only child resulting from the draconian one-child policy in China, repeatedly told me there were “too many people” in China, implying that perhaps after a certain age they should all be culled to leave room for the next generation. One woman told me she didn’t want a leaflet as she was “from Australia”. I said: “But you can still read English, can’t you?” She agreed and we had a good talk. Again, a personal case history of watching her mother die and feeling her death was too protracted.

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The only really hostile encounter I experienced was from a well-spoken elderly lady who told me she was a Christian too. “I am so angry with you lot!” she said, with real fury in her voice. Again, it was a personal story of watching her husband die of cancer, with him “begging” her to put him out of his misery. I sensed the much-publicised turnaround over euthanasia of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, when she identified herself as a Christian.

Not being an experienced pavement polemicist, it struck me later that if you engage in this activity it is very important, in the kindest possible way, to get people away from their personal horror stories of watching loved ones die. They get swept along by the loaded emotions behind their narrative and within seconds you find yourself attacked as cruel and unfeeling – worse, someone who is “unChristian” and who is taking a stand the very opposite of a loving Jesus. My last speaker almost said to me: “How dare you call yourself a Christian!” By the time this happens, any chance of a reasonable discussion has vanished.

One peer who I listened to in the public gallery of the House of Lords that same afternoon said: “This Bill will destroy trust between doctors and patients.” I think it is simple statements like this that we should stick to when arguing with ordinary people who have been swept up by the rhetoric of the euthanasia lobby. Otherwise, as in the debate about the meaning of marriage, we can be easily wrong-footed as uncaring and lacking compassion. What a shame that Lord Carey, so clear in his defence of traditional marriage, should have made such an untimely and mistaken volte-face over this issue.

The phrase I took away with me from listening to the Lords’ debate was, inevitably, from Shakespeare, when an elderly peer quoted movingly from the end of King Lear: “Men must endure their going hence…” In our quick-fix solution to dying we have surely lost the idea of endurance.

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