Apparently the UK is “closer than ever” to introducing legislation which will permit the terminally ill to end their lives at a time and place of their choosing. Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill simply will not die: it is deemed to be the virtuous and noble solution to the problem of unbearable suffering; the only ethical and justly moral response to a heartless society which insists on sustaining lives which simply no longer wish to be lived. We treat dogs better.
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey is amongst the signatories to a letter demanding that the political parties pledge to giving this Bill parliamentary time after the General Election, in order that the issue might be finally resolved. By “resolved”, they mean, of course, that the Bill must be passed, or the issue has not been “resolved” to their liking and will simply need to be revisited until Parliament votes correctly. The only settled conclusion that is acceptable is the one which concludes a settlement in favour of ‘assisted dying’. The argument is teleological; the trajectory is locked.
Proponents of the Assisted Dying Bill tend not to like international comparisons with, say, Belgium, which now euthanises children; or the Netherlands, where 650 babies were ‘put to sleep’ in 2013, many because their parents were unable to bear their children’s suffering. Dutch doctors will now obligingly kill you if you are depressed or have tinnitus. But we Britons are seemingly much more able to guarantee the necessary safeguards to ensure judicial oversight for the protection of the most vulnerable. There will be no ‘slippery slope’ as has afflicted the Belgians or Dutch because we will have the strictest of strict safeguards, including a ‘six-month-to-live’ clause; the requirement for two doctors – yes, two – to approve the procedure’; and a High Court judge to put his judicial seal on the termination.
Proponents of the Assisted Dying Bill tend also not to like legal-ethical comparisons with, say, abortion, the legislation for which also promised strict safeguards to protect the most vulnerable, including the requirement for two doctors to approve the procedure. But, as we have seen over just a single generation, those safeguards are now routinely circumvented and protections diluted to the point of moral hollowness. We now abort babies for being female, and do so seemingly with impunity.
Parliament cannot guarantee that the ‘last resort’ of euthanasia will not become, over time, the expedient normative of the ‘pro-choice’ society. If it may become the standard means of dispatch in the Netherlands – such that some 6,000 people now opt for that desired end – there is nothing to guarantee that Lord Falconer’s Bill will not become the British norm. Those who support this Bill would be wise to heed the words of Professor Theo Boer, the Dutch ethicist who supported euthanasia and oversaw the legislation when it was introduced in the Netherlands. “Don’t do it, Britain,” he urged last year. “Once the genie is out of the bottle, it is not likely ever to go back in again.”
Whatever Lord Carey strongly believes or passionately expresses, and however well-intentioned and honourable he may be, he is simply wrong on this matter, and his successor at Lambeth Palace and the Church of England are right. For Justin Welby, ‘assisted suicide’ is dangerous, abusive and mistaken. For the Church of England, “Patient safety, protection of the vulnerable and respect for the integrity of the doctor-patient relationship are central”.
Ah, but ‘assisted dying’ did not conceptually exist in the Ancient Near East; nor is the word euthanasia in the Greek NT, you may charge. And you would be quite right. But biblical morality is not confined to Hebrew jots and tittles, and Christ’s teachings cannot be limited to the words of text; they must extend to the whole pattern of thought which they imply. And that means there may be areas where theological argument is expounded from broader principles, and the practice of euthanasia is one such example, for it is unconditionally inconsistent with biblical ethics, even though it is not explicitly condemned in the biblical text.
And because it is not specifically mentioned, it is important to keep the argument open to public examination and political discussion. There is more to morality than expressions of political will and the force of public opinion. Morality is much more than what man desires or creates. The sanctity of life is subject to divine reckoning, and God never promised that life would be easy. To be painlessly happy and to conquer every form of discomfort and inconvenience is the dream of modernity. But since it is unattainable in nature, we seek superficial means of anaesthetising and immunising ourselves to suppress our suffering, and by doing so we rob ourselves of the deeper purpose of and passion for life.
How long will it be before we are killing the physically disabled and mentally ill because we are unable to cope with the sight of their suffering, or even to mitigate the burgeoning costs of their care? Lord Carey cannot know; nor can he promise. Instead of joining the deathly chorus of celebrity secularists, humanists and theological liberals, he might reflect on the instances of suffering in the Bible and consider what doctrine of God might be conveyed by the Book of Job if the comforters had been permitted to assist their friend to pass into eternity. What vindication would there have been? What of God’s glory would have been revealed?
If we are to care pastorally and compassionately for the elderly and disabled, we cannot entertain the option of ‘assisted suicide’ for the terminally ill. Lord Carey undoubtedly cares, but he needs to care a little more for the inevitable unethical consequences of not caring for the weak, dependent, defenseless and poor.