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Canterbury Tales: Favourite Bible Stories Retold by Archbishop Justin Welby

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Prudence Dailey’s Commentary: There is Nothing Humanitarian About Assisted Dying

Prudence Dailey’s Commentary

There is Nothing Humanitarian about Assisted Dying

Although Baroness Meacher’s recent Assisted Dying Bill did not go to a vote, no-one believes that the issue has gone away. The official position of the Church of England remains staunchly opposed to assisted suicide, and every Lord Spiritual who spoke in the debate, did so to oppose the Bill. A cynic may assert that it is unusual for the Church of England to hold a firm line on anything—or, at least, anything that is not a ‘woke’ cause such as racism or climate change—but its position on this is a matter for genuine gratitude.

At the same time, some the proponents of voluntary euthanasia have portrayed opposition by Christians (and adherents of other major religions) as founded in outdated and supernatural beliefs, that run counter to humanitarian interest. Why, they ask, should some Prelate’s faith in a soul and an afterlife be allowed to stand in the way of a dignified death for a terminally ill person who may not share those convictions, and who may wish to be relieved of his suffering in the same way that a beloved pet might be ‘put to sleep’?

It does not help that an increasingly vocal minority within the Church—including, most disappointingly, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey—has come out in support of physician assisted death: Lord Field, a Christian who is terminally ill, announced that he had changed his mind, and now supported Baroness Meacher’s Bill. These voices enable those arguing in favour of assisted suicide to claim that even Christians are divided on the issue, and it is only a reactionary rump that is holding back progress.

As Christians, we believe that our lives belong not to us, but to God, and that they have intrinsic value whether we value them or not; it is not for us to decide the day or hour of our death. Nevertheless, we cannot rely on such arguments, or expect them to pass muster with politicians and the public in an increasingly secular society. Fortunately, we do not have to: the pragmatic arguments are overwhelming.

To see how assisted suicide might pan out, we need only look to countries where it has been legal for some time:

  • In Canada, the requirement for a person to be terminally ill has been scrapped, and euthanasia will soon also be available to those whose suffering is mental rather than physical.
  • In Belgium, euthanasia is also available for mental as well as physical suffering, and has been expanded to include children as well as adults. In a well-known case, (adult) identical twin brothers who were deaf and learned that they were also going blind, but were not otherwise ill, chose to have their lives ended by doctors.
  • In the Netherlands, those who are not ill but simply experiencing normal old age increasingly opt for euthanasia. Shockingly, what are euphemistically termed ‘life-terminating acts without explicit request’ are also very common, with doctors make the decision on behalf of patients.
  • In the US state of Oregon, there have been cases of health insurance companies refusing to pay for palliative care, because (much cheaper) assisted dying is available as an alternative.

It is no surprise that, in this country and around the world, disability rights campaigners are among the staunchest opponents of assisted suicide, recognising it as a threat to vulnerable people. They understand that a right to die can, and often does, become a perceived duty to die; and that when the idea that doctors can end life becomes embedded in the healthcare system, palliative care suffers.

Proponents of assisted suicide argue that measures would be implemented to prevent abuses and protect the weak; but the complexity of the human condition is such that unintended consequences cannot simply be obliterated by the magic wand of ‘safeguards’. There is no possible safeguard for the frail elderly woman who, believing that she has become a burden to her family (whether or not they also believe that), becomes sincerely convinced that the world would be better off without her in it, and that she wishes to die.

When a cat or a dog is suffering incurably, a one-way trip to the vet is the final act of kindness. The idea that we might treat humans in the same way is, perhaps superficially compelling; but it is wrong. Human beings are not animals—or, at least, not just animals—and our capacity for understanding, coupled with the unique sacredness of human life (which most secular people intrinsically accept, even if they might phrase it differently) brings the parallel to an end.

There is powerful pressure for assisted dying in this country, but it is not irresistible. It is up to all of us to ensure that it is resisted. 

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