The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, and the current head of the Church of England, Rev Justin Welby, have publicly expressed opposing views in the debate over Lord Falconer's Bill to legalise assisted dying.
Lord Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has called for Parliament to think again about whether terminally ill patients should be granted the right to choose when to die.
However Archbishop Welby described the Bill to be debated in the House of Lords on Friday as "mistaken and dangerous".
Writing in the Times, Archbishop Welby said he understood how seeing a loved one suffer prompted the desire to "do almost anything" to alleviate their suffering.
He cited the agony he suffered seeing his own seven-month-old daughter Johanna, who was fatally injured in a car crash in France, die in 1983.
But he warned that the "deep personal demands" of one situation should not blind people to the needs of others including more than a half a million elderly people who are estimated to be abused every year in the UK.
"It would be very naive to think that many of the elderly people who are abused and neglected each year, as well as many severely disabled individuals, would not be put under pressure to end their lives if assisted suicide were permitted by law," he wrote.
Lord Carey’s positive views on the bill run counter to the long-established position of the Church of England, which is opposed to any change in the law that would make assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia legal.
His surprise intervention comes as peers prepare to debate a Bill presented by the former Labour Lord Chancellor, Charles Falconer, which would allow doctors to prescribe poison to terminally ill and mentally alert people who wish to kill themselves.
Writing in the Daily Mail, Lord Carey said he was still implacably opposed to assisted suicide and euthanasia – but would support the assisted dying bill during its second reading next Friday.
He wrote: “Until recently, I would have fiercely opposed Lord Falconer’s Bill, following the traditional line of the Christian Church. I would have used the time-honoured argument that we should be devoting ourselves to care, not killing.
“I would have paraded all the usual concerns about the risks of ‘slippery slopes’ and ‘state-sponsored euthanasia’.
“But those arguments which persuaded me in the past… fail to address the fundamental question as to why we should force terminally ill patients to an unbearable point. It is the magnitude of suffering that has been preying on my mind as the discussion… has intensified.”
The President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger, warned recently that unless Parliament decides whether to amend the law, the courts may do the job for them. So far, 110 peers have indicated that they want to speak in Friday’s debate on the Falconer Bill.