According to the rules of etiquette, it is best not to discuss politics or religion in polite company. You can probably add the subject of death to that, too. Of course, as regular communicants of His Grace’s blog will know, all three are at the top of this site’s agenda.
Right now, though, it is hard to escape two out of those three every time you pick up a paper or tune into the news. Even Facebook, which is generally populated by selfies and cute cats, has the image of poor Aylan Kurdi’s limp and lifeless body all over it. Drowning migrants and how we as a nation respond to the refugee crisis won’t be leaving the front pages for a while. And next week another death crisis rears its ugly and unwelcome head (once again).
On 11th September, MPs will be debating and voting on Labour MP Rob Marris’s Assisted Dying (suicide is far more accurate and honest) Bill. Over the last few years Lord Falconer, with the help of his friends at Dignity in Dying (formerly the Voluntary Euthanasia Society), have been doing their utmost to push it through the House of Lords. They have been thwarted each time by those peers who are (thankfully) not blind to its inherent dangers. But, like a zombie, the Bill has been raised from the dead once again and, thanks to Marris, is spreading its infection through the House of Commons.
Preparing for death and chronic physical deterioration are emotive subjects. We hate to see those we love suffer, and many of us fear what might lie ahead in our own lives. It is under this banner of compassion that ‘Dignity in Dying’ is attempting to cajole our parliamentarians into siding with their single-minded objective to allow us to control the time and place of our deaths. It is no secret that they and their friends’ approach is to bang the drum relentlessly and push hard to stir up enough support that eventually their opponents will be overwhelmed and capitulate. The fact that there is considerable concern across the board about the weaknesses of the proposed legislation is simply dismissed.
The assurance is that only adults of sound mind and with fewer than six months to live will be given the right to end their lives prematurely. This is supposedly sufficient to avoid abuse of the system. However no disability organisation agrees with them. Nor does the British Medical Association (BMA), which represents doctors in the UK. You only have to look to the Netherlands and Belgium where the boundaries continue to be relaxed to see that the ‘slippery slope’ argument is anything but hypothetical, though this, too, is routinely dismissed as hysterical scaremongering.
And please, whatever you do, don’t try to argue against assisted dying on religious grounds. Dignity in Dying has been scathing of religious opposition, treating it as irrational and irrelevant in a predominantly secular society. “Look!” they say, “We have Lord Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury, fighting our corner, as well as Alan Wilson, Bishop of Buckingham, and his chaplain, Canon Rosie Harper, and..”
And who? Well, that’s pretty much it. It doesn’t seem to matter that last year more than 20 senior faith leaders, including Justin Welby, all signed a letter opposing the previous version of the Bill. Trying to find a Christian who will publicly support their objectives is like finding a turkey who looks forward to Christmas. “No, no, you’re all wrong and our tiny band of Christian friends are absolutely right,” Dignity in Dying insists. “Can’t you see how wise Lord Carey is when he describes the proposed law as ‘a profoundly Christian and moral thing’?” He wrote a piece for the Mail on Sunday last month, in which he said: “I often find myself asking: ‘What would Jesus do?’ I think I know what he wouldn’t do. He wouldn’t say: ‘There, there. Pain is good for you. Take it like a man or a woman.'”
Let’s take a deep breath and think about this for a moment. If assisted dying is Christian and moral, we must believe that Jesus would encourage it. Can you really imagine a woman coming to him with a malignant cancerous growth, and Jesus looking at her with compassion but offering some poisonous berries? Or, if none was available, handing her a knife, telling her that there is nothing left in her life worth living for and that it would be better if she slit her wrists?
Jesus came to restore and to heal; not to destroy. He expects us to do the same. It is ironic that at a time when the notion of ‘assisted suicide’ is becoming increasingly acceptable, palliative care and analgesic medicines are more advanced than they have ever been. Yet, despite this, we are proposing that doctors, instead of advancing the best quality of life for their patients at all times, are to be handed a gun to load, and then hand it to their patient and let them pull the trigger.
The gun in this case contains a lethal chemical cocktail. It may be more clinical and less dramatic than a bullet, but the effect is manifestly the same. Some might think that it should be a matter of personal choice of when to end it all, but it is an impossible pursuit without coercing the medical profession into becoming agents of death; both complicit in the decision and active in the process. How exactly is this Christian?
Jesus had plenty to say about defending the weak and vulnerable. Legislation that requires patients to be of sound mind assumes that, as we consider death in our frail bodies, we will make entirely rational decisions. This is a time when all become weak and vulnerable, and our mental health is most likely not at its strongest. Putting pressure on people to make up their minds as to whether others would be better off if they were gone is neither moral nor loving.
But Dignity in Dying isn’t really bothered what Jesus thinks: they see religious arguments as little more than a pathetic and deceitful irritation. Just to make that point, their head of communications, Sam Dick, wrote on Twitter yesterday: “Sunday being the last before the #assisteddying Bill, steel yourselves for clergy telling you that ppl having choice will damage others.” He followed that up with another: “I do hope that on Sunday our faith leaders don’t bear false witness when discussing #assisteddying. Congregations deserve better.” These were both promptly retweeted by his Chief Executive, Sarah Wootton.
So, there we have it. Religious leaders are not only scaremongering, they are most likely lying, too. How about everyone else who disagrees with assisted suicide? Are they just as deluded or malicious? How about Douglas Murray writing in the Spectator last week? There’s one respected atheist who he has carefully set out the countless pitfalls and dangers that we face if we legalise this form of death. His analysis of what is happening in other euthanasia-advocating countries makes chilling reading. Abd then there’s Baroness Finlay, professor of palliative care at Cardiff University; co-chair of Living and Dying Well; past-President of the BMA, and a member of the BMA’s Medical Ethics Committee? Having spent 23 years as a doctor working in palliative care and treating many thousands of patients, she has come to the conclusion that assisted dying/suicide is simply wrong. She writes:
Some believe that doctors should do more than treat our illnesses and relieve our pain and distress – they should, it is being suggested, be licensed to put us down or help us to kill ourselves, if that is what we say we want. This new agenda comes in sheep’s clothing. Euphemisms, such as “assisted dying” or “end of life assistance” all disguise the reality of deliberately ending life months or years early. The propaganda is full of words like “dignity”, “compassion” and “choice”. And, in case we still harbour reservations, we are told not to worry as there would be “safeguards”.
The trouble is that, when you look beneath the surface, you see that it isn’t as simple as the propagandists would have us believe. This topic is a highly complex ethical, legal, clinical and social issue. The more each strand of the debate is examined, the more evident it becomes that the picture the euthanasia lobby paints is a distorted one.
This is the problem that Dignity in Dying has: no matter how hard they try, they simply cannot disguise the flaws in their objectives, or those in the Assisted Dying Bill. Accusing their opponents of lying (or hurling childish abuse) shows how weak their position is: it is a facile attempt to deflect attention from their inability to respond to the perfectly reasonable arguments put to them.
Assisted suicide turns each of our lives into a commodity to be consumed and controlled. In doing so, we undermine our own value and worth. Suffering and death will always be inseparable, but true compassion, as Jesus so profoundly demonstrated, is not revealed when we obliterate suffering, but rather when we stand alongside and bow down to weep with those who suffer.
There is still time to contact your MP regarding the Assisted Dying Bill. More information on how to do this can be found at No To Assisted Suicide.