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A leading aide to the archbishop of Canterbury has come out in defense of voluntary euthanasia, a move some see as signaling a change in position by the Church of England.

Canon Professor Robin Gill, a leading Church of England theologian, speaking to London’s Sunday Telegraph, said, “There is a very strong compassionate case for voluntary euthanasia. In certain cases … there is an overwhelming case for it.”

Gill, who in 1998 edited “Euthanasia and the Churches,” cited the recent case of Diane Pretty, a terminally ill woman who campaigned for the right to assisted death following a motor neurone disease.

It was unclear whether Gill was speaking for Archbishop Rowan Williams, who had asked him, last week, to attend a parliamentary committee investigating hearing on a pending bill on assisted dying for the terminally ill.

Gill’s pronouncement follows last week’s release from custody of retired policeman, Brian Blackburn, who killed his terminally-ill wife by slashing her wrists then surviving his own suicide attempt. He only served three months for the “mercy killing.” The judge, in dismissing him, called Blackburn a “loving husband” and his actions “as the last loving thing [he] could do for her”.

Gill did not restrict his view to the morality of assisted suicide, but spoke out against prosecution of those like Blackburn who assist in killing others. “I don’t know what the archbishop thinks about this issue but I believe that people should not be prosecuted when they help someone die in this country, nor should they be prosecuted if they travel abroad to help family members die in countries with different laws.”

Pro-euthanasia groups have been quick to celebrate Gill’s statement as evidence the Church of England is prepared to re-examine it’s past opposition to assisted suicide.

“Christianity is about compassion, and one has only to look at the sad circumstances in the Blackburn case to recognise that the current law is not a compassionate response,” Deborah Annetts, chief executive of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, said. “Using the criminal law to determine end-of-life decisions is not medically, legally or ethically appropriate, nor is it a proper public policy approach.”

“The archbishop’s choice of Prof. Gill represents a willingness to enter into a more constructive dialogue than before about this important issue. We hope that it will encourage other members of the clergy to speak out in support,” added Annetts.

Archbishop Williams, however, has been a longtime member and supporter of the pro-life group, Society for the Protection of Unborn Children, that campaigns against legalizing euthanasia. And the Church of England recently joined the Roman Catholic Church in a joint statement in opposition to the Assisted Dying Bill which legalized euthanasia.

“Anglicans are not united on whether we should legalise euthanasia,” Gill contended to the London Observer. “The bishops have consistently shown they don’t believe in changing the law, but the majority of churchgoers think it should be amended.”

“I cannot imagine this view would commit itself to many Christian teachers,” commented Rev. Rod Thomas, a member of the Church of England’s General Synod. “Only God can end life.”

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