Rev Woodward Speaks Out On Assisted Dying

Updated 11:30AM, Wednesday February 1st, 2012 by Sam Hailes, Be the first to comment! seperator

The highly emotive and contentious debate around assisted dying hit the headlines again in January after The Commission on Assisted Dying published its controversial report.

Headed by Lord Falconer, the commission spent 12 months researching the issue before publishing the 400 page report

The 11 commissioners included MPs, doctors and professors. But one member, Rev Dr James Woodward has rejected the report’s conclusion that there is a “strong case” for allowing assisted dying in UK law.

Speaking to, Rev Woodward said he joined the commission with an “open mind”.

“I had no previously publicly declared view about the rights or wrongs of assisted dying but I had nearly 25 years of pastoral experience working with the dying. I had written about the pastoral and spiritual dimension of death and dying in a small book published by SPCK called Befriending Death.”

Rev Woodward, who says he came under “some fire” for joining the commission, is reluctant to stereotype Christians as having an opinion either way in the debate.

“The predominant view by the churches and faith leaders is changing the law is not the right thing to do. But my experience…is that there are many Christians who don’t take church leader’s line that assisted dying is wrong from a Christian perspective and have argued very forcibly and coherently that helping someone to die is an act of compassion, and a perfectly morally action for Christians to take.” 

The commission gathered 1300 pieces of evidence during 2010, a process that Rev Woodward describes as “very rigorous”. Nevertheless, some have criticised the report as being bias.

Rev Woodward admits some of his fellow commissioners have actively sought a change in the law through the House of Lords but argues it is “completely impossible” to have a neutral opinion on the subject.

"I understand that people want to discredit the integrity and honesty and rigour of the work of the commission. It is completely impossible to have a neutral opinion or perspective on assisted suicide. No one comes to the table completely independent. All of us have some sort of prejudice in the area."

"I would make a plea from a Christian perspective not to judge the report around perceptions to do with independence but to judge the report on the quality of the evidence presented in the pages of the report."

Having learnt an “enormous amount” through being on commission, Rev Woodward isn’t any closer to forming an opinion on the morality of assisted dying. However he is still opposed to legislative change.

“In the end, for me the report represented a rather narrow legal and medical perspective. As a person of faith what I think we need in this area is to have a much more theologically wise reflection about what human beings are, how we cope with loss and change and death. And what choices it’s legitimate to have in our living and in our dying. “

Rev Woodward is eager to encourage more discussion on the subject. “What I want Christians to do is to enable more conversation, more reflection and more wisdom which we’re only going to do is if we move away from these rather polarized opinions of ‘I’m for assisted dying and don’t want to listen to those who are not’, or conversely those people who are saying ‘I’m against this and I’m going to object and shout and parody anybody who feels they want to move the law.”

Rev Woodward believes we all need to “face up” to our morality and have “difficult conversations” about death – regardless of our respective ages. He says the Church and society in general will be “judged” on how it treats the frail and venerable.

“We could do well in our house groups and churches to bring the subject of loss and change and death out of the cupboard, brush the dust off and reflect together about what this subject means to us and how we cope with these things. Given the fragility and unpredictability of life, we would all do well to consider making sure our will is written and making sure we’ve had some conversation about how we’d like our lives celebrated at our funerals.”

Speaking about the report, Rev Woodward said: “I suspect that as time moves on it will be regarded as a helpful and very serious contribution to the discussion on assisted dying.”

While admitting he has “more questions than answers”, Rev Woodward said he was “apprehensive” about changing the law.

“One of the reasons why…is my pastoral experience of journeying along with people in the last few days and hours of their lives. Those moments of dying and death are both very previous and very holy and to be denied that process of life ebbing away towards death is to deny something very powerfully."




Sam writes news, features and reviews exclusively for The job involves meeting influential and interesting Christians from across the country and beyond. Most importantly, he never talks about himself in the third person.

This article was written and published by Sam Hailes for


Rev Woodward Speaks Out On Assisted Dying Discussion

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