According to The Observer (12 November 2006), the Church of England has said that “in some rare instances it may be better to end life than to artificially prolong it”. This statement, says The Observer, “is a landmark for the church” and “is expected to spark massive controversy”. The Sunday Times and Daily Mail made similar claims. These assessments might possibly be true – if the Church of England had actually said what is reported in The Observer. In fact, it said nothing of the sort.

In a submission made nearly 18 months ago to the Nuffield Council on Bioethics, it said:

“In the Christian tradition the conceiving and bearing of a child is not for the purpose of producing a perfect baby, but to receive and nurture a divine gift. The fetus and neonate are unique individuals under God. We cannot therefore accept as a justification for killing them the argument that their lives are not worth living. This is not incompatible with accepting that it may in some circumstances be right to choose to withhold or withdraw treatment, knowing that it will possibly, probably or even certainly result in death”.

The submission goes on to say:

“There may be occasions where, for a Christian, compassion will override the 'rule' that life should inevitably be preserved. Disproportionate treatment for the sake of prolonging life is an example of this”.

It is hard to see how these statements constitute a “landmark” or are likely to “spark massive controversy”, as they are no different from what the Church of England has been saying all along. To understand that, however, you have to read them with care – which The Observer appears not to have done.

There is a huge difference - in law, medical ethics and morality - between on the one hand withholding or withdrawing treatment which is ineffective and often disproportionately burdensome to the patient; and on the other ending a patient's life. When people are dying, whether they are adult or newborn, there sometimes comes a point when doctors realise that, despite their attempts to restore a patient to health, the treatment simply isn't working - and is often itself causing disproportionate distress to the patient – and that there is nothing more they can do to save the patient's life. In such circumstances it is morally, legally and ethically acceptable for treatment to be discontinued and nature allowed to take its course.

The pro-euthanasia lobby claim not to see the difference between this (as they call it) 'passive euthanasia' and the taking of deliberate action by a doctor to end a dying patient's life. If the one is allowed, they argue, so should the other. But there is a crucial distinction – the intention of the doctor. In the one case, the doctor has tried to save the patient's life but has had to give up, simply because the underlying disease process has been inevitably progressive and medical science has its limits. He may foresee that the patient will die more quickly as the result of burdensome and ineffective treatment being withdrawn but this is not his intention. It is a simple end-of-life decision, such as is taken in hospitals around the country every day of the year. In the other case the doctor acts with deliberate intent to kill the patient. Here we have, not a simple end-of-life decision, but an ending-life decision. That is illegal, immoral and unethical. The Observer appears not to understand the distinction, but most people probably can.

Observer Story - Some sick babies must be allowed to die, says Church
observer.guardian.co.uk/uk_news/story/0,,1945866,00.html

Church of England Policy on Euthanasia
www.cofe.anglican.org/info/socialpublic/smte.html#euthanasia

Church of England Submission to Nuffield Council
www.cofe.anglican.org/info/socialpublic/bioethics.html