English bishop urges Catholics to oppose Jersey assisted suicide proposal

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The Catholic bishop overseeing the island of Jersey has called on clergy and parishioners to “speak out” and mobilize against proposals to legalize assisted suicide there. 

Jersey, located in the English channel near the French coast, is under the purview of the Diocese of Portsmouth. Bishop Philip Egan of Portsmouth has spoken out repeatedly in recent years against the legalization of assisted suicide and euthanasia in the Channel Islands. 

“Assisting someone to die prematurely or to commit suicide, even when they earnestly request it, can never ever be a compassionate action. It is a grave sin. We must not yield to the temptation to apply rapid solutions, moved by a false compassion or by criteria of efficiency and cost-effectiveness,” Bishop Eagan wrote in a May 22 letter.  

“Instead, we need to show respect and tenderness to patients who are seriously ill so that the sacred value of their life can shine forth with splendor in their suffering. Modern palliative care, an area in which the UK is a world leader, enables this.”

Jersey is a British crown dependency, with its own government and legal system, though the British monarch is head of state. It has a unicameral legislature called the States Assembly, which backed an assisted suicide proposition by 36 votes to 10, with three absences, on Nov. 25, 2021. 

Eagan’s letter comes amid elections in Jersey. The bishop urged voters to overturn the “grim proposals” currently before the island’s legislature. The proposition would permit an adult island resident under certain conditions with a “voluntary, clear, settled, and informed wish to end his or her own life” to seek assisted suicide.

“Don’t let Jersey become a destination for death and suicide tourism. Assisted suicide is incompatible with a doctor’s role as healer. It would be difficult or impossible to control. It would pose serious societal risks. The right to die would soon become the duty to die,” he noted. 

The Catholic Church supports, rather than assisted suicide or euthanasia, palliative care, which means seeking to accompany a patient towards the end of their lives with methods such as pain management. While firmly opposing euthanasia, Catholics do not believe life must always be prolonged with unduly burdensome medical treatment. Pope Francis has described assisted suicide as part of a "throwaway culture" that offers a "false compassion" and treats a human person as a problem.

“Frailty, pain and infirmity are a difficult trial for anyone. Those who are terminally ill can experience despair and gloom at the problems they face, even feeling a sense of burden on family and a financial burden on society. Yet we can thank God for the amazing advances that medical science has made and for the level of loving care that can nowadays be given,” Eagan wrote. 

“Modern drugs and modern methods mean that in today’s world, palliative care doctors and nurses can use their skills and knowledge to ensure that pain is properly managed at the end of life. Indeed, as a Christian, I would go further and say that in union with Christ, it is possible to find from Him all the strength, patience and energy we need to sustain our suffering – to ‘carry the cross’ (Mt 16: 24) – and to turn it into a positive good for others.”

In March 2021, Jersey formed a citizens' jury, made up of 23 randomly selected applicants, to determine whether assisted suicide should be allowed on the island. If the island changes its laws, Jersey will be the first place on the British Isles to allow assisted suicide, though proposals to legalize the practice are also being considered in both Scotland and England.

The Jersey jury met virtually ten times over two months, starting March 18, to hear evidence and consider and debate the legal, ethical, and medical implications of legalizing assisted suicide. 

Ultimately nearly 80% of the jurors, or 18 out of the 23, agreed that assisted suicide should be permitted when a Jersey resident, aged 18 and over, has a terminal illness or is experiencing “unbearable suffering,” which would not include suffering caused by a mental condition such as depression, ITV reported.

Health Minister Richard Renouf has said that he fears that some elderly or frail residents may feel themselves a “burden” on their families and may feel pressure to end their own lives.

“We believe in assisted living, not assisted dying. Death is not pain relief but the beginning of a new life for ever with God our Father and Creator. This future depends on the state of our soul when we die and this perspective rightly affects our decisions on end of life care and how best to uphold a patient’s personal dignity. Someone near the end of life needs support, comfort and care, good pain control, respect and loving communication – not suicide on prescription,” Egan wrote in his letter. 

Bishop Egan has also spoken out in recent years against proposals to legalize assisted suicide on another Channel Island, Guernsey. In 2018, the legislature of Guernsey rejected a proposed legalization of assisted suicide, drawing praise from Bishop Egan.

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