The Moral Imperative in End-of-Life Choice Looks Different Now

For those of us grounded in end-of-life care and choice, the earth shook this week. Did you feel it? The shaking hasn't stopped, but the religious foundation from which aid-in-dying opponents build their strength cracked.

Tomorrow, Britain's House of Lords will debate a bill to authorize assisted dying as a legitimate medical practice. Last week former archbishop of Canterbury, Lord George Carey, recanted his position of opposition and declared his full support. A few days later Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa, perhaps the most visible symbol of moral authority in the world, voiced his own strong support for choice in dying.

The bill in Parliament is modeled on Oregon's 20-year-old law, the Death With Dignity Act. A group of about 10 Oregonians worked for months preparing that document for the 1994 Oregon ballot. As one of those co-authors, I say in all humility that I am bursting with pride to see it put to use in Britain. Like Oregon's law, the bill would allow a terminally ill, mentally competent adult to request life-ending medication to ensure a peaceful death. They can keep it on hand in case suffering in their dying process becomes unbearable, and they may self-administer it at a time of their own choosing.

The British have been looking at the Oregon model since 2006, when Lord Joel Joffe first introduced such a bill in the House of Lords. I watched from the gallery and saw an entire wall of men in clerical garb (the bishops who sit and vote as Lords) demonstrate the barriers to passage were insurmountable. The church's opposition was adamant, and it was uniform.

That was before Lord Carey broke rank. Writing in The [London] Guardian, he says he has been moved by his life experiences: "The fact is that I have changed my mind. The old philosophical certainties have collapsed in the face of the reality of needless suffering."

While this news was still fresh, came the even more momentous revelation that Archbishop Desmond Tutu, close ally of Nelson Mandela through the dark days of apartheid, friend of the Dalai Lama and conscience of a nation, also decided the time had come to speak out in The Guardian. "I have been fortunate to spend my life working for dignity for the living. Now I wish to apply my mind to the issue of dignity for the dying. I revere the sanctity of life -- but not at any cost."

Knowledgeable people expect the British bill to go to the full committee of the House of Lords, which means it will be spared the devastation of a "wrecking amendment" and move along in the legislative process. The committee will study it. The current archbishop of Canterbury has said the church should study it as well. Study of the Oregon experience, real study, free of biased assumptions and unfounded accusations, can only lead to the conclusion that aid in dying comforts many as they prepare to die, assists a few in crossing that threshold in peace and dignity, and harms no one. Governments have no legitimate reason to forbid this basic human freedom.