Archbishop Welby said Lord Falconer's Assisted Dying Bill could open the way to abuse and neglect of older people.

But Carey, who now sits in the House of Lords after leaving office as the spiritual leader of the world's Anglicans in 2002, told the Daily Mail that he had dropped his long-standing opposition.

"The fact is I've changed my mind," he wrote in a piece for the British newspaper. "The old philosophical certainties have collapsed in the face of the reality of needless suffering," he explained.

The former cleric, 78, said he would support the bill, brought by Lord Charles Falconer, which would allow mentally-capable adults to request help to die if they were suffering from a terminal illness and had less than six months to live.

It is due to be debated in the House of Lords on Friday, July 18.

The Church of England has consistently argued for no law change, and its current leader Archbishop Welby repeated his opposition.

"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 in the Times newspaper.

"It would be equally naive to believe, as the Assisted Dying Bill suggests, that such pressure could be recognised in every instance by doctors given the task of assessing requests for assisted suicide," he warned.

Lost appeals, renewed hope

The publicly expressed opposing stances of the former and current archbishops comes less than a month after Britain's Supreme Court rejected two appeals which would have paved the way to allowing assisted suicide in the UK.

Though the appeals by paralysed car crash victim Paul Lamb and Jane Bickinson, widow of a man who had locked-in syndrome, were unsuccessful, campaigners saw progress and analysts a possible softening of judges' stances on the issue.

Lord Neuberger, president of the court, said in his judgment: "Parliament now has the opportunity to address the issue of whether [the bar on assisted suicide] should be relaxed or modified." 

The courts have repeatedly said that assisted dying is not an issue to be decided within the justice system, but is a matter for parliament to debate, on both moral and procedural grounds.

Public opinion

A YouGov poll in May showed that a majority of the public - 73 percent - support the new proposals.

More than 2,000 adults were asked to vote after reading the explanation that it is currently illegal and that 'if passed, the bill would allow terminally ill adults the option of assisted dying. This would mean being provided with life-ending medication to take themselves if two doctors thought they met all of the safeguards. They would need to be of sound mind, be terminally ill and have six months or less to live, and have made a clear and settled decision with time to consider all other options.'

The poll showed that 73 percent supported the bill, 13 percent believed it should not be made law, while 13 percent were undecided.

The bill would not legalise assisted suicide for people who are not dying (for example disabled people or older people) or a system where the person being directly helped to die is no longer competent to make that choice for themselves.

Neither would it legalise voluntary euthanasia, where a doctor administers the life-ending medication. Under the Assisted Dying Bill, the person choosing an assistance to die would self-administer the prescribed life-ending medication.

Becoming law

If the bill is passed by the House of Lords next week, it will continue through the various stages to legislation. Once a bill has completed all the parliamentary stages in both the House of Lords and then the House of Commons, it is ready to receive royal assent. This is when the Queen formally agrees to make the bill into an Act of Parliament, i.e. law.

There is no set time period between the conclusion of consideration of amendments and royal assent.

(VoR, AFP)