Assisted dying and the sanctity of life

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Assisted dying and the sanctity of life

How do religions view the growing trend toward assisted dying in the UK? Read on to learn about their criticisms and reservations.

Following the June 2022 United States Supreme Court decision that overruled Roe v. Wade, opinions on how and when we enter this world have dominated the news. At the same time, however, focus on the opposite end of life has also generated newfound discussion: assisted dying. In the United Kingdom, the topic has garnered increased attention following the July 2022 trial of Graham Mansfield, a husband who killed his terminally ill wife, per her request, in 2021.[1] Ultimately, Mansfield was cleared of murder, but found guilty of manslaughter for what was called both a “horrible act” and an “act of love.”[2] Following the horrific ordeal, Mansfield has called for an introduction of a euthanasia law.[3] [4]

Though many might support it, others – especially religious institutions – have spoken out against such a change. This article surveys assisted dying laws in the UK and surrounding European nations and the role of religion in shaping them.

Baroness Meacher’s UK bill

In the United Kingdom, where assisted dying remains illegal, Baroness Meacher, a peer in the House of Lords, introduced a bill in 2021 that would have legalised the procedure for some terminally ill patients.[5] Though the bill failed to be introduced in the House of Commons in the 2021-2022 term, it received a first reading in the House of Lords. Additionally, Baroness Meacher has expressed optimism about its passage in the coming years.[6] In fact, in April 2022 she announced that she expected the bill, if debated, would be supported by a majority of MPs. By contrast, the last time a vote took place on such a bill, in 2015, 330 MPs voted against and 118 supported it.[7]

While the opinions of all MPs are far from fully known, one institution has been adamant about its opposition: the Anglican Church.[8] A high-ranking official of the church, William Nye, argued that a change in the law “would undermine the intrinsic value of every human life.”[9] Baroness Meacher countered this opposition, accusing the Church of being out of touch, given recent opinion polls that showed over 70% of respondents supported assisted dying.[10] Nye, however, countered by saying ethical questions are poorly assessed via such questionnaires. The church is expected to further solidify its opposition following a synod later in 2022 , arguing instead for an increase in palliative care.[11]

The Anglican Church has not been the only religious institution to air concerns. Catholic and Jewish authorities also expressed opposition to the bill in late 2021.[12] In a joint letter, members of the three faiths argued that they jointly “hold every human life to be a precious gift of the Creator, to be upheld and protected.”[13]

A similar debate across the Commonwealth

Across the world, another Commonwealth country has seen contentious debate over the same issue in 2022. In Australia, a Catholic newspaper has found itself in hot water following a blistering attack on New South Wales’ new assisted dying policies. In an editorial, Catholic Weekly likened the laws, which allow the procedure, to the Holocaust. Immediately thereafter, groups, including the Jewish Anti-Defamation League, spoke out against the comparison.[14] Even other Catholics, like Australian Father Bob Maguire, criticised the article, while still maintaining that the law is a bad move.[15] Some of those who worked to pass it, like Matt Kean, are Catholic, yet put more weight on “an enduring attachment to personal liberty.”[16]

Other European nations

As of early 2022, Austria became one of the latest European nations to explicitly legalise assisted suicide.[17] The move came following parliamentary and judicial action that cited, like Kean, motivation for better protecting “self-determination.” Despite these moves, Archbishop Franz Lackner criticised the law as part of an unfortunate trend, one that ignores the sacred value of every life and is particularly harsh on those with disabilities.[18]

With this law, Austria joins several other European nations, like the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and Spain, where forms of assisted dying are either legal or decriminalised.[19]

Across the Channel, assisted dying has made news in France, too, as reports emerged in September 2022 that President Emmanual Macron hopes to pass a law legalising the procedure by the end of 2023 following a large public consultation.[20] British supporters of the move have called for their government to follow suit.[21]

Faithful supporters

Not all religious adherents oppose assisted dying as much as those discussed. In fact, the organisation Dignity in Dying, a pro-assisted dying group, has formed a subgroup of religious officials who support euthanasia.[22] The group cites Christian and Jewish figures, including such famous individuals as Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in support of the cause.[23]

What the future will hold for assisted dying is uncertain. Several studies have shown broad support for assisted dying measures – even amongst religious adults.[24] [25] Broad support, however, does not necessarily lead to a changed legal apparatus. That said, as more countries legalise the practice, the trend does appear to be growing.

Tyler Mikulis

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[1] Man who killed his wife in ‘act of love’ calls for assisted dying law

[2] Man who killed his wife in ‘act of love’ calls for assisted dying law

[3] Man who killed his wife in ‘act of love’ calls for assisted dying law

[4] Graham Mansfield: Failed suicide pact killer calls for law change

[5] Assisted Dying Bill [HL]

[6] Assisted Dying Bill now backed by most MPs, Baroness Meacher insists

[7] Assisted Dying Bill now backed by most MPs, Baroness Meacher insists

[8] Church of England vows not to support assisted dying law

[9] Church of England vows not to support assisted dying law

[10] Three quarters of Britons support doctor-assisted suicide. Just one in three MPs say the same

[11] Church of England vows not to support assisted dying law

[12] Catholic, Anglican, and Jewish leaders urge UK Parliament to reject assisted suicide bill

[13] Faith leaders warn of risk to vulnerable posed by Assisted Dying Bill

[14] Father Bob Maguire adds to criticism of NSW government’s voluntary assisted dying laws

[15] Father Bob Maguire adds to criticism of NSW government’s voluntary assisted dying laws

[16] Father Bob Maguire adds to criticism of NSW government’s voluntary assisted dying laws

[17] New law allowing assisted suicide takes effect in Austria

[18] Austria: Assisted suicide legalized despite Church opposition

[19] The countries where euthanasia is legal

[20] INFO FRANCEINFO. Fin de vie : Emmanuel Macron souhaite lancer une convention citoyenne sur le sujet et faire voter une loi en 2023

[21] France announces launch of assisted dying citizens assembly

[22] Religious alliance for Dignity in Dying

[23] Religious alliance for Dignity in Dying

[24] Religious alliance for Dignity in Dying

[25] Church of England vows not to support assisted dying law