How it feels to be on the brink of a life passage, from youth to middle age to death.

"Nothing Holy About Agony"

Archbishop Tutu's support of death with dignity adds heft to debate on the bill

Matt Hobbs
Public Domain Archive,
Maybe it was anger at the way his old friend Nelson Mandela was treated at the end of his life, trotted out by politicians for photo ops and subjected to several hospitalizations in his final months that, for all anyone knew, served only to prolong his suffering. Maybe it was because, at the age of 82, he is thinking more personally about what it means to have a good death. But for whatever reason, Archbishop Desmond Tutu wrote a newspaper column in favor of assisted dying this past weekend, a reversal of his previous position that will no doubt have an impact far beyond his native South Africa.

It has already had an impact in Great Britain, which this week is debating a bill in the House of Lords introduced by Lord Falconer that might actually pass. According to The Sunday Observer of London, where Tutu's column was published, 110 people have signed up to speak about the bill, an unusually high number.  

In his article, Tutu referred to a recent case in South Africa in which a 28-year-old man, Craig Schonegevel, ended his life less peacefully than he wanted to, because it was illegal for a physician to help him end his suffering from neurofibromatosis with a lethal dose of medicine. As Tutu wrote in his Observer piece:

Some say that palliative care, including the giving of sedation to ensure freedom from pain, should be enough for the journeying towards an easeful death. Some people opine that with good palliative care there is no need for assisted dying, no need for people to request to be legally given a lethal dose of medication. That was not the case for Craig Schonegevel. Others assert their right to autonomy and consciousness – why exit in the fog of sedation when there's the alternative of being alert and truly present with loved ones?

Many of Tutu's fellow Anglicans, including the current Aarchbishop of Canterbury, oppose Lord Falconer's bill. But 60 religious leaders recently issued a statement in its support. Jonathan Romain, a London rabbi, was one of them, saying that supporting the bill was a "religious response" to the pain some people go through at the end of their lives. "I see no sanctity in suffering," he said to Observer reporters David Smith and Daniel Boffey, "nothing holy about agony."

It will be interesting to watch from across the pond as Lord Falconer's bill is debated. I suspect that the backing of Archbishop Tutu, the winner of a Nobel Peace Prize and conscience to so many people, will have an impact.


Robin Marantz Henig is a science journalist and co-author, with her daughter Samantha Henig, of Twentysomething: Why Do Young Adults Seem Stuck?


Subscribe to Cusp

Current Issue

Let It Go!

It can take a radical reboot to get past old hurts and injustices.