Letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury

This letter was sent a week ago. The archbishop has had time to receive it and was informed that it will be published here.

Dear Archbishop Williams,

I have been trying for over two years to write this letter, and it never seems to come out right. Your recent
letter to the press, co-signed by Archbishop Nichols of Westminster and the Chief Rabbi of the United
Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, Jonathan Sacks, spurred me on to bring this process to an
end. You will probably say, and with some justice, that you have more important things to consider, but
since what you said has led me to a settled distrust of all religion, I believe that you should at least give some
consideration to what I have to say.

Late in 2006, I read the speech that you made to the House of Lords regarding Lord Joffe’s assistance in
dying bill. The moment I read it, what I had taken to be faith simply died away, and not a shadow of it
remains; it is gone forever. Here are the words to which (among others) I took such grave exception: “All
religious believers hold that there is no stage of human life, and no level of human experience, that is
intrinsically incapable of being lived through in some kind of trust and hope.” With those words faith
simply came to an end, with a suddenness and completeness that was quite astonishing, and with it the
meaning and purpose of all the years I spent as a priest. I have not taken a step inside a church since that
day, and I have no intention of doing so in the future. Not places of holiness after all, but places where too
often evil dwells and calls itself good.

While this has been a matter deep personal concern for many years, I have a personal stake in this. I read
your speech sometime in October or November 2006, a few months after you delivered it. On 6th
September 1998 my wife Elizabeth, much younger than I, had her first symptom of what turned out to be a
very aggressive case of MS (multiple sclerosis). She was severely affected almost from the first day – walking
uneasily, climbing stairs with great difficulty, and in almost constant pain from the beginning – and by
2003 she could no longer walk at all. Early in 2006 she had liver dysfunction (due to medication she was
using to reduce spasticity and some of the pain which had remained at a high level since the start), and was
admitted to hospital. Upon her release a month later, she could no longer use her arms to support her body
weight, she had no function from her shoulders down, and no feeling, with continuing severe pain, and she
was no longer able to use the only drug which had provided some relief. She was finding it more difficult to
speak, since her throat was becoming numb. On 6th September 2006, eight years to the day since her first
symptom, Elizabeth tried to die by suicide. (Notice, I do not say ‘commit suicide’, but use instead the more
appropriate words ‘die by suicide’, since suicide is not a crime – despite the church’s considerable
ambiguity (expressed mainly by silence) regarding suicide – and it is often, for people in great distress, the
only way to resolve the intolerable burden of their suffering.)

Her attempt to die by suicide failed, and so she began making plans, shortly after her recovery from an
overdose of morphine and sleeping pills, to travel to Zürich, where she could receive assistance in dying. It
was shortly after this that I read the speech you had made to the House of Lords, and that is doubtless why
my response was so intense. (I am not, however, suggesting that my vehemence on that occasion was
unjustified.) By that time Elizabeth was already making her plans. She contacted Dignitas, in Zürich – the
only place in the whole world where she, as a nonresident, could legally receive assistance in dying
. She
got the green light from Dignitas early in 2007, and a proposed date for an accompanied death, which
would only be activated on the advice of a physician in Switzerland, and only if she still wished to continue
with her plans. She made reservations for our flight to Switzerland, reservations for hotel accommodation,
arrangements for limousine service in Zürich, and funeral arrangements.

By that time Elizabeth had resolved to have a nonreligious memorial service, since she felt herself so badly
let down by you, and by the church that she had known and loved for so many years. For her, too, faith had
simply gone dead within her, and she did not want prayers, the eucharist, or any other religious ritual at her
burial. At her memorial God was to be mentioned only to try to understand or to criticize belief, not to
express or to practice it. She died in Zürich on Friday, 8th June 2007. Her ashes were buried in Canada
without religious ceremony, using a service we had composed together, on 23rd June 2007. I thank
goodness for Ludwig Minelli and Dignitas – and also for Arthur Bernhard and Gabrielle who were there to
help Elizabeth bring her dying to an end after suffering so much and for so long – for their compassion and
kindness to Elizabeth and to me. You and the church, god, gods or goddesses, I do not thank. (Interestingly,
Arthur Bernhard, as we waited for police and other authorities to go over the evidence of Elizabeth’s death
by suicide, remarked that most Swiss favour what Dignitas is doing, but that (in his words): “Christians are
always trying to change the law.”)

Had the laws been different, and had Christians (and other religious believers) in Canada, as in Britain, and
elsewhere, not opposed so strongly laws which continue to prohibit assistance in dying, I know that
Elizabeth would have lived longer, possibly much longer, she would not have had to premise her dying on
her ability to travel – since she would have known that, when the time came, and things had become too
much of a burden, she could lay her burden down – and I would not have been deprived of her love and
presence so soon. Nor would she have been exiled to die in a foreign land, nor have had to live with the
continuing anxiety of the possibility of being trapped helplessly in her body. These things I lay at your door.
I hold you, and others like you, responsible for Elizabeth’s early death, for the great anxiety which she
suffered for so many years, and for the fact that she had to travel so far and with so much pain and distress
in order to receive the help in dying that she sought. These are things that I am not disposed to forgive you
or the regressive faith that you profess. Nor, at the same time, do I forgive you or the church for the
completely inhuman refusal to see that suffering, at the end of life, which can be relieved only by assistance
in dying, is as legitimately relieved by such assistance, if the dying person so desires, as the provision of
medicines, surgery, and other modalities of treatment or cure are legitimately provided for the relief of
illness and suffering in the midst of life. There is no reasonable distinction to be made here, and it is mere
unthinking dogmatism that permits you, and others like you, to bring your influence to bear in order to
force people to die in whatever misery happens to be dictated by their diseases.

By your words and actions, and by the church’s words and actions, the god you believe in becomes even
more cruel than it already apparently is because of all the indiscriminate, and quite unequal, suffering that
exists. Instead of permitting relief for those who are dying in great pain and distress by the only means
available, or acceptable, to the dying person – assistance in dying, where that option is the dying person’s
reasoned choice – you increase unnecessary suffering by refusing, on unintelligible dogmatic grounds, to
allow that assistance. Not content with that, you actively campaign, in the name of your beliefs, to see that
that refusal is imposed by law upon those who do not share those beliefs with you. Your god, already cruel,
is made more cruel by your dogmatism, and people are unjustly denied their choice to see their lives come
to an end in a way that is not only consistent with their beliefs, though perhaps in conflict with yours, but,
more importantly, without the pain and suffering they wish to avoid. You choose not to treat them as
persons capable of making decisions, and impose on them suffering which they seek to escape by exercising
their legitimate freedom as persons. Whatever all religious people hold (and I do not think even that is
true), why do you think you have a right to impose those beliefs on others? And why do you, with those
beliefs, also seek to impose the pain and distress that those who suffer wish, by their own choice, to bring to
an end, when life has become, for them, intolerable, and without hope?

I know that you and others provide tangential reasons for refusing to permit the legalization of assistance in
dying, as though everyone would be at risk if a policy so humane and respecting of freedom should be
instituted. There is no reasonable basis for these beliefs, as you might know if you were to inform yourself
of some of the facts, and yet you are prepared to use these beliefs, without apology, to shore up religious
beliefs which are without reasonable foundation. You forget, along with your partners in religious crime,
Archbishop Nichols and Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, in your joint letter to the press, that those who are
dying in great pain and distress, or who are suffering from degenerative conditions which makes their lives
unbearable, are extremely vulnerable people. Responding to that vulnerability by limiting care at the end of
life to hospice or palliative care is not enough. You claim that the number of those in extreme distress is
very small. On what basis do you make that claim? And, in any event, is that small number not worthy of
your compassion and consideration? There is not a shred of evidence for your claim that vulnerable people,
of any description, would be put at risk by the legalization of assistance in dying for those who request it. In
your speech to the House of Lords you made specious reference to the ambiguity of the evidence from
Oregon in the United States. There is no basis for such a claim. Those who choose assistance in dying in
Oregon are generally better educated than the average and more accustomed to control over their lives, and
the same general picture tends to hold true of those who have chosen to go to Switzerland for assistance in

The continuing claim that you and other religious people make that laws enabling assistance in dying could
not be safely or fairly administered is unfounded. The claim that it would endanger the relationship of
medical professionals and patients is unfounded, and in many cases doctors’ inability legally to provide
relief at the end of life strains such relationships to breaking point, and is sometimes more than the
consciences of some doctors can endure. The Dutch concept of ‘overmacht’ comes into play here, and yet
you, who profess belief in a loving god, will not allow your conscience to be engaged in a matter of such
great moral importance.

Your continuing claim that assistance in dying would endanger palliative and hospice care is specious,
since, wherever assisted dying has been introduced, palliative care shows a tendency to improve. Contrary
to the belief of religious people that assisted dying stems from a ‘culture of death’, or disrespect for the value
of life, those who campaign for assisted dying have, not only a great respect for life, and a deep compassion
for the suffering of those who are dying, but also a deeply held belief that individuals should have control
over the time and manner of their dying, that dying should not be prescribed merely by the diseases that
people suffer and our limited ability, in some cases, to relieve their suffering and distress – a suffering and
distress that you are prepared to ignore under the specious pretext that permitting compassion would put
lives at risk.

Forcing people to live in conditions that they do not choose is, effectively, to enslave them, to force them to
live in conditions of life that they find intolerable. Every act then becomes coerced, and every breath a
denial of freedom. Religion, in your hands, is still seeking to use its authority to control the lives of others,
and such authority is as malignant in your hands as it was in the hands of some of your predecessors.
I am, therefore, bitterly angry with you. I see pictures of you in your fine vestments holding forth
confidently on this subject or that (not always with clarity or intelligibility, I might add), and what I see is a
moral disaster dressed up in fancy clothes. I believe that you and your church and those who represent you
here in this country are partly responsible for the distress, anxiety and uncertainty that my wife Elizabeth
suffered during the years of her illness, and almost entirely responsible, along with your fellow believers in
other churches and religions, for the anguish which accompanied my wife’s first attempt to die by suicide,
all alone, for fear of laws which you and they seek to uphold, and for the subsequent distress of a long
journey, and the need to die in another country, far from her family and friends. All this I lay at your door.
Your words to the House of Lords, and your recent letter to the press, are amongst the most thoughtlessly
callous words that I thought to hear uttered by a Christian, uttered in the name of a god, and completely
oblivious to the untold private miseries which so many people have had to suffer and will continue to suffer
as a consequence, and I hold you and those with whom you share faith responsible for much of the
suffering that my wife experienced both during her life and towards the end, as she sought to end her
suffering and the terrifying prospect of further suffering, in the only way left to her: by receiving assistance
to help her to die in peace and in dignity, as she chose. As I say, I am not disposed to forgive this
thoughtless, uncaring callousness. Indeed, perhaps only a god could atone for such moral evil as, to my
mind, you represent. Not, mind you, that I think there is such a god, or such atonement, but it would take a
lot to unburden yourself of such heavy moral responsibility for so much gratuitous and unnecessary
suffering for which you are, by your words, directly responsible.


Eric S. MacDonald
(The Rev’d Canon, retired)

Comments are closed.