Prudence Dailey Commentary
Assisted suicide is in the news again, with Baroness Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill having recently been introduced in the House of Lords. I do not doubt that those who advocate for assisted death are genuinely motivated by compassion, in itself a Christian virtue: we would not (so runs the argument) allow an animal to languish in unbearable suffering, so why would we do that to a loved one who is begging to be put out of his misery? It is a powerful and emotive claim, the more so because many of its most prominent advocates over the years have been those who are personally touched by the issues raised.
Despite this, Christians have traditionally always been firmly opposed to assisted suicide. Having been more than a little critical of the Church of England in recent columns, I now want to give it credit for remaining steadfast on this issue: unlike some other churches, including The Episcopal Church in the USA and the Anglican Church of Canada, the Church of England has avoided going wobbly when it comes to the end of life. The few inevitable dissident voices have remained a small minority, as the General Synod has consistently opposed assisted dying, and bishops have spoken out against it in the House of Lords. I hope they will do so again when Baroness Meacher’s Bill is debated.
Christians are concerned with the principle of the sacredness of life; and also with how this plays out in practice. It is not necessary to frame arguments against assisted suicide in religious terms, precisely because this is God’s world, and if we do not play by His rules, the consequences will soon manifest themselves.
Sadly, in the case of physician assisted dying, we do not have to speculate as to what these consequences might be, since there are a number of jurisdictions where it is already well-established—including, notably, Belgium, the Netherlands, Switzerland and the US States of California and Colorado. What started out as a desire to enable those who were terminally ill and suffering physically to bring forward the end date, as it were, is now increasingly being extended to include those who are not terminally ill; those whose suffering is psychological rather than physical; and even children. In Canada, you can now get the medical profession to kill you if you are simply ‘tired of life’, and Dutch campaigners are seeking similar provisions there. No wonder assisted suicide rates are soaring.
Horrifically, Euthanasia is permitted in the Netherlands in cases where the patient is deemed unable to give consent, and there have been alleged cases there of involuntary euthanasia, where elderly patients have been euthanised in hospital contrary to their expressed wishes. In Oregon, a terminally ill woman was denied funding for palliative care by her health insurance company, on the grounds that she did not need to suffer as they would be willing to pay for physician-assisted suicide instead. Advances in palliative care—whose ‘gold standard’ is represented by the Christian-founded hospice movement—would surely grind to a halt in the face of this brutal, quick and cheap alternative. (We don’t have hospices for pets.)
Those who advocate for assisted suicide speak optimistically of safeguards; but of course there is no safeguarding against the reality of the human condition. Even were it possible to weed out individuals who were being put under pressure by unscrupulous relatives to end their lives, what of those whose expressed wish to die is rooted in their own belief that they are a burden? Too often, choice can in itself be a burden, and there are some choices that no person should be expected to make. Although the UK has, thus far, stood out against Assisted Suicide, it is clear that the campaigners are not going to give up—and so we must not, either. If we can do nothing else, prayer is urgently required.