Civil Liberties

Assisted suicide and the unbearable indignity of the insupportable life


“I can’t take this anymore,” said Chantal Sebire (left), as the cancerous bulge ate into her nasal cavity and gnawed at her brain, robbing her of sight, taste and smell. Yet the french courts did not permit the terminal condition to be hastened. She would certainly die of the incurable tumour, but its progress would have to be natural, with all the attendant discomfort, misery and pain. No self-respect, no identity or dignity. We don’t treat dogs like that.

“I do not want people to remember me as a sort of old lady hobbling up the road with a trolley,” said Gill Paraoh (right), as she suffered no terminal disease and took no medication. The perfectly healthy former palliative care nurse simply felt she was “going over the hill” and that old age is “awful”. She told The Sunday Times: “I have looked after people who are old, on and off, all my life. I have always said, ‘I am not getting old. I do not think old age is fun’.”

And so off she travelled to Switzerland – where “to Switzerland” is a euphemism for Dignitas, which is a delicate code word for assisted suicide, which is itself a verbal evasion of euthanasia. The goodness of the ‘easy death’ is intrinsic to the one which has dignity, self-determination and compassion. In the case of Chantal Sebire, it would be to end unimaginable physical, mental and emotional agony. In the case of Gill Pharaoh, it would be to end the worry of her becoming a liability to her family and a bed-blocker in the NHS. Perhaps we do treat dogs like that – out of some mistaken notion of mercy.

There is a distinction to be drawn between withholding life-sustaining treatment from the terminally ill, and administering a cocktail of drugs to provoke death in the perfectly healthy. Passive euthanasia (withholding treatment) is legal, while active euthanasia (deliberately acting to end a life) remains illegal – for the time being, at least. But let us not pretend that the thresholds aren’t being blurred and language distorted as the one gradually morphs into the other. Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill will surely expand incrementally to embrace emotional and mental suffering, just as it has done in Belgium and in the Netherlands.  The unbearable life of terminal physical illness is ultimately indistinguishable from the insupportable life of mental anguish. After all, old age is terminal. Who are you to impose your pious absolutes of grave sin and sanctity upon me?

If you can go ‘to Switzerland’, why shouldn’t you be able to pop to the local A&E? Why, in this era of fundamental human rights and absolute equality, should active euthanasia be the preserve of those who can afford to fly out “to Switzerland” with their loved ones, or those who have the luxury of mental competence and are surrounded by those who “understand how you feel”.

Some can endure life’s afflictions with immense stoical grace, but others cannot bear the torment and distress. And some cannot bear to grow old, or even the thought of growing old. If it becomes moral to suppress life prematurely because of the oppressions of time and nature, why should assisted suicide be the preserve of the physically sick at the behest of a few doctors or a judge? Isn’t it a question of liberty and fundamental human rights? If we are free to terminate our lives at a the time of our choosing – as we have been since the decriminalisation of suicide in 1961 – shouldn’t we be free to procure assistance in our desire? Wouldn’t that be the Christian and compassionate thing to offer?

Natural law – what constitutes right and justice – is common to all mankind. The Greeks and the Romans articulated this in their philosophy, setting the foundation for St Paul and later philosophers. Thus did Cicero write of “true law, right reason, diffused in all men, constant and everlasting”; and St Paul reflect on ‘what the law requires is written in their hearts’ (Rom 2:15). Hobbes defines the law of nature as “a precept of general rule found out by reason by which a man in forbidden to do anything which is destructive of his life”.

Opposition to “do anything which is destructive of life” is one of the few general rules which unites all of the world’s religions. The Church of England is unequivocal:

Every person’s life is of immeasurable value and ought to be affirmed, respected and cherished by society. This is true even when some people no longer view their own lives as being of any further value. This attitude is central to our laws and our social relationships; to undermine this in any way would be a grave error and risk eroding carefully tuned values and practices that are essential for a society that respects and cares for all .

The Catechism of the Roman Catholic Church states: “Whatever its motives and means, direct euthanasia consists in putting an end to the lives of handicapped, sick and dying persons. It is morally unacceptable” (2277). Pope John Paul II reflected in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae that “we see a tragic spread of euthanasia, disguised and surreptitious, or practised openly or even legally. As well as for reasons of misguided pity at the sight of the patient’s suffering, euthanasia is sometimes justified by the utilitarian motive of avoiding costs which bring no return and weigh heavily on society”. And after him, Pope Benedict XVI stated that “freedom to kill is not a true freedom but a tyranny that reduces the human being to slavery”.

The Orthodox and Protestant churches have expressed similar views, most notably the Baptists, who concluded that “a Christian should never recommend, or help with a suicide of an unsaved person because that would hasten the unsaved person’s damnation and prevent any chance of repentance. It is an affront to God to take one’s own life, both for reasons of his sovereignty but also because any murder is an attempt to annihilate his image in man (Gen1:26f)”.

Similar sentiments opposing euthanasia may be found in the scriptures, ethical teachings and legal traditions of Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Sikhism. Suffering is natural to the human condition: the end of life does not need hastening, but loving. There should be no breezy right to an ‘easy death’, but true dignity and unending care through all the filth and stench of the difficult death. Assisted suicide is as morally repugnant as abortion; indeed, it is difficult to comprehend those who repudiate the former while supporting the latter, for both are concerned with the termination of the seemingly deficient, imperfect or unwanted. And both have the whiff  of eugenics about them – ending the ‘unworthy’ life.

Just as the legalisation of abortion was never intended to open the floodgates that it so manifestly has, so the legalisation of ‘assisted suicide’ would mutate over the decades, and eventually – if only out of an assertion of economic and social equality  – lead to the ‘humane’ termination of those who contemplate the inevitability of old age and simply can’t be bothered to continue. And what begins with volunteers will expand to include conscripts, for the ‘right’ to die easily becomes the family’s expectation and a moral duty.

In a culture that worships youth, beauty and physical fitness, the elderly, ugly and disabled may be seen as deficient and decrepit, but they are made in the image of God. And just like Jesus did at Calvary, they must be exhorted to suffer and supported as they endure, and to do so with dignity. And then, with Job, they might come to know that their redeemer lives. And in the meantime, unlike with Job, they need friends and comforters around them who can make them see that their lives have worth, and that their witness to goodness is unique and profoundly valued.