How does the presence of the Lords Spiritual in the House of Lords further complicate the debate surrounding the legal status of assisted dying in the English legal system?

By LSS member Harriet Baylis

In modern Britain, two recent Bills – The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, and the Assisted Dying Bill – have provoked much debate as to the role of religion in legislating on such morally contentious subjects. More specifically, there are currently twenty six Church of England Bishops sitting in the House of Lords as of right, and these particular Bills, due to their nature, bring about the question as to how the Bishops’ presence both informs and complicates the legislative process within this context.

Elizabeth Wicks, a legal academic, recognises the strained relationship that exists between the law and religion especially in modern times, as the law adopts a more interventionist approach to regulating the medical profession. She suggests that the co-existence of both religion and law within the legislative body may be seen to be particularly unhealthy when discussing healthcare regulation, and this is certainly a view at the heart of secularism.

When discussing the Assisted Dying Bill, the Archbishop of Canterbury explained the Church’s opposition by proclaiming that, “to specify, even in the fairly broad terms of the Bill, conditions under which it would be both reasonable and legal to end your life, is to say that certain kinds of human life are not worth living. As soon as this is publicly granted, we put at risk the security of all who experience such conditions.”

George Pitcher, a journalist and Anglican priest, holds the view that the Lords Spiritual were very hesitant to engage in this debate as they feared that it would be deemed a simple choice between religion and secularism by the euthanasia lobby, and he says that is nonsense. However, some members of the legislature felt that their religious beliefs could not be separated distinctly from their moral views when contemplating the Bill and voiced no desire to attempt this disentanglement. Lord Mawhinney said: “I seek to have my faith integrated as part of who I am. I cannot – and will not – seek to dissociate who I am and my views from my faith.”

This separation may indeed prove impossible in practice, yet the fact that official religious representatives are present in the House of Lords with the sole purpose of voicing moral views from one religious angle is what is arguably unsettling to me as a secularist. Lord St John of Fawsley expressed an extreme view in so far as he wished to defer the “issues of moral principles to the Lords Spiritual.” The implications of Lord Fawsley’s opinion are that, for some members of the legislature, the Lords Spiritual represent, and are the voice of, their own moral considerations, and so when such an issue arises, it should be for these figures of authority to express what the law’s position should be, in line with the “higher law” of God.

It can also be drawn out that members like Lord Fawsley, by entrusting this minority of the House with the responsibility of expressing their own correct moral positions on such subjects, believe that British society’s moral positions are subsequently reflected. In other words, the implication of having these twenty six religious figures is that they express the moral stances of the whole of society and should be the only ones to do so.

Many rightly deem this to be simply inconsistent with modern British society, which is so diversely multi-cultural and composed of an array of different attitudes surrounding moral topics such as birth, life and death. This is also the conclusion drawn by Wicks, in that she asserts that while the Lords Spiritual “may speak for the followers of that church, they do not speak for those of other faiths, or for those with no religious convictions. And yet, if passed, the Bill would apply to all members of society.”

Wicks draws on a further complication, aside from the religious and secular debate, that there exists an internal religious conflict. This can be explained by Lord Laing of Dunphail’s statement: “I believe that one has a personal relationship with God and through Jesus Christ. If after prayer one chooses assisted suicide, that is a personal decision between oneself and one’s maker. We should bear in mind that God gave us free will.” He confirmed that he saw no contradiction between his faith and his support for the Bill. This, for Wicks, shows that there is no singular religious concept of the sanctity of life applicable to end-of-life decisions and so surely indicates that we should most definitely avoid any attempt to apply it in the first place.

Andrew Copson, Chief Executive of the British Humanist Association, deems the views of the Bishops on such topics as assisted dying as “far outside the mainstream” and asserts that if we are forced to regard the Church’s view as somewhat separate then why should we consider it unique compared with trade unions or the Women’s Institute, bodies who are not delegated a number of official representatives. He says that these claims to uniqueness do not stack up in reality.

The official representatives of the Church in the House of Lords further complicate the already tremendously complex debate surrounding assisted dying as it allows for one, yet only one, group in society, with a particular and rigid moral stance to overpower a debate which should take place among democratically elected representatives of society who voice the views of all moral positions in the country, whether these be religious or non-religious. In all, as it stands, the presence of the Lords Spiritual fundamentally compromises the concept of a secular legislative process in the United Kingdom. My argument is not that the Church’s stance should not be reflected in our decision on how we legislate on assisted dying, but instead that one religion should not be given an authoritative position in influencing our decision when others are not. The solution must surely be to remove these religious figures from the process altogether. Britain is the only country – other than theocratic Iran – to have clerics sitting in its legislature as of right.

Views expressed are not necessarily those of the LSS

LSS logo2

Follow the LSS on Twitter @LawSecSoc and stay up to date with everything the LSS is up to by signing up for email alerts on this website’s home page (you can unsubscribe anytime you want)