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Ethics – Local perspective on Guernsey’s rejection of assisted dying

July 2018 | by Tim Berry

One church pastor on the channel island of Guernsey tells us about the recent decision to reject proposals to introduce assisted dying. If the proposals had gone ahead, pressure for similar measures in the UK would have seriously increased.

For twelve weeks during February to May this year, the usually quiet, safe island of Guernsey felt like it was on the edge of a precipice. Legislators were bidding to make Guernsey the first place in the British Isles to introduce assisted dying (or more aptly, assisted suicide). Thankfully, with all the credit going to God, the decisive vote was eventually defeated by a sizeable majority.

Churches campaign

The churches of Guernsey came together in a level of co-operation never seen before to express their concerns, and help organise a campaign against this move. A letter to the people of Guernsey published in the local newspaper was signed by 51 church leaders from across all denominations, representing almost all of Guernsey’s churches.

At a meeting organised to rally supporters, there was a personally recorded message from Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson; and addresses by the Anglican Dean of Guernsey, the Very Reverend Tim Barker; Peter Saunders the CEO of the Christian Medical Fellowship; and Kevin Yuill, a disability rights speaker.

Local people were encouraged to write to, and speak with their political representatives (deputies), which they did in unprecedented numbers. A website was set up, providing really helpful and up to date information, presenting the case against assisted dying in a compelling, accessible and well researched way. A presence on social media was also established.

Prayer meetings were held around the island on the eve of the debate, and a silent, dignified protest took place outside the parliament building each morning of the three-day debate. During the debate, the key points were tweeted by sympathetic supporters, helping those following to understand the arguments and pray.

Guernsey and its government

As a Crown Dependency, Guernsey is self-governing, and not a part of the United Kingdom or the European Union. It is English speaking and patriotically loyal to Her Majesty the Queen, in her role as the Duke of Normandy. Being just 20 miles off the Normandy coast, there is a French influence on the island, although it has spent most of its history trying to keep the French out!

Its darkest years were during the Second World War when, along with rest of the Channel Islands, it was the only part of the British Isles to be occupied by the Germans. Evidence of its five years of occupation can still be seen throughout the island, and that experience has certainly left its mark on the collective consciousness of the people. The current population is approximately 63,000, with the finance industry bringing wealth and employment in recent decades. Its traditional industry of growing tomatoes and flowers has sadly all but died out.

The island’s parliament, known as the States of Deliberation, is made up of 40 deputies (MPs), two of whom are representatives of the neighbouring island of Alderney, which Guernsey has responsibility for. The unofficial emblem of Guernsey is a donkey, which its inhabitants openly acknowledge represents their stubbornness and fierce desire for independence! This came out in this issue, with real resistance to anything that was seen as outside ‘interference’. The island strongly feels this is a matter for it to decide upon, regardless of what other jurisdictions are doing.

The requête

The requête (equivalent to a parliamentary bill) seeking to introduce assisted dying was brought, effectively as a private members bill, by the island’s most senior politician, with the support of six other deputies as required.  While it was stated that assisted dying was being sought as an option for residents of the island with a terminal illness that meant they had less than six months to live, the requête was actually alarmingly vague.

It asked for agreement in principle to introduce assisted dying, and only afterwards for the States to determine the legal framework in which that was to be done. A number of deputies and others, pointed out that this felt like putting the cart before the horse. As a consequence, the requête lost some support, and several subsequent amendments were proposed, making the whole thing rather messy and confusing.

With there being no political parties or blocs, it was very difficult to gauge the level of support the requête had at any stage, with it appearing to be on a knife edge and many of the deputies saying they would make up their minds having listened to the debate. The matter was debated with a pleasing level of respect and seriousness over a three-day period. In the end, the key motion was defeated by 24 votes to 14.

The arguments for assisted dying

Compassion and choice were the key arguments being presented in favour of assisted dying. It was asserted that it was ‘morally abhorrent to keep people alive against their wishes, particularly when they are suffering’, and that an individual had the right to choose their care, and ought to be able to end their life with dignity.

The case against assisted dying

The churches sought to be sensitive and respectful, acknowledging the real suffering that individuals, and their loved ones, can experience towards the end of life. Church leaders spoke as those who were closely involved in supporting and caring for people in the latter stages of life, along with their family and friends.

In their letter, the church leaders challenged the idea that ‘choice’ could be made in isolation from other people and society’s expectations, fearing that assisted dying legislation would have a dangerous impact on the most vulnerable in society. When some people’s lives are legally considered ‘not worth living’, what message and impact does that have on those with disabilities and life-debilitating conditions? A society that legalises the ‘killing’ of certain people, will create a culture where everyone feels the pressure to end their lives when at their weakest and most vulnerable.

The letter also sought to make the point that the truly compassionate thing for people at the end of their lives was to care for them, not kill them. Attention was drawn to the already excellent palliative care on the island, urging that the focus be on improving this further, along with increasing the mental health provision and care for those with age-related conditions, such as dementia.

While references were made to Christian beliefs, such as the intrinsic value of every life as it is made in the image of God, it was a conscious choice to frame the letter using the ‘Esther principle’ —  with God and his truth all over it, but not directly named.

Lessons learnt

The churches of Guernsey were very much caught on the back foot when this requête was first announced, not understanding the arguments involved in this specific issue, and perhaps of greater concern, not fully appreciating the momentous cultural shift in our society that this seems to be a part of.

This requête was defeated, but the clamour for personal choice and freedom, and the increasingly ‘individualistic’ society in which we live, means that this matter (and others) will almost certainly return, both here on the island and in the UK. As churches we surely need to learn not just how to speak into these moral and ethical debates better, but how to more effectively proclaim the gospel to the people in our society, and be God’s representatives in our society.

Personally, this has also made me think through the whole matter of what Francis Schaeffer called ‘co-belligerence’ —  co-operation with, and campaigning alongside those with whom, in other respects, you might have fundamental differences. For me this still remains a thorny issue, that I have not fully got my head around the biblical principles of.

The churches of Guernsey are thankful to the Lord, and to all those among the ET’s readership who prayed about this matter. We have felt our absolute dependence on the Lord, and the prayers of his people; being reminded afresh of how ‘the king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turneth it withersoever he will’.

Tim Berry is pastor of La Villiaze Evangelical Congregational Church, Guernsey.