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Britain Shows United States How to Discuss End-of-Life Issues

By Sean Crowley

“If we truly love our neighbors as ourselves, how can we deny them the death we would wish for ourselves?”

Those are the words of Lord Carey, the retired Archbishop of Canterbury, in the lead up to last month’s record setting 10-hour debate by 127 members of Britain’s House of Lords over an aid-in-dying bill modeled after Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act.

Compassion & Choices President Barbara Coombs Lee coauthored the Oregon law and testified about its long track record of success since its implementation in 1997 before the All Party Parliamentary Group on Choice  at the End of Life in October 2011.

The debate was summarized in a Slate.com column by Dr. Lewis Cohen, a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine, a Guggenheim fellow, and the author of No Good Deed: A Story of Medicine, Murder Accusations, and the Debate Over How We DieLewis made some very poignant observations in his Slate.com column:

“The House of Lords debate barely rated mention in the American news media. That may be because there is an almost impenetrable taboo in our country surrounding death-hastening decisions. We can learn a lot from the recent discussion in the United Kingdom …

“When the debate in Parliament finally ensued, Lord Falconer [the bill sponsor] addressed the assembled: ‘…The current situation leaves…the majority reliant on amateur assistance, the compassionate treated like criminals and no safeguards in respect of undue pressure.’

“…Both thoughtful and emotional arguments volleyed back and forth in the oak-paneled chamber …

“Lord Harris optimistically announced, ‘[The Bill’s] passing is as clear a mark of social progress as this week’s Church of England decision allowing the appointment of female bishops and the 2013 legalization of equal marriage.’

“… Lord Falconer’s bill…has now officially passed the second reading and is moving to the committee stage. There it will be scrutinized, amendments proposed, a report issued, and it will eventually move to a third reading before possible passage. Whatever the bill’s fate, the debate has both raised awareness and educated the public about an increasingly crucial issue.

“Paradoxically, aid in dying has more to do with living than with dying. It is most relevant in affluent countries like the United Kingdom and United States where many citizens are likely to die slowly of the infirmities of age and progressive illnesses rather than suddenly of violence and accidents …

“One can but hope every country—including the United States—will achieve a national conversation about how we want to die, and this can occur with the wisdom, honesty, style, and eloquence that were on display in London.”

You can read the complete Slate.com column and watch Lord Falconer’s testimony by clicking here.