Any Man’s Death Diminishes Me

Originally published in the Church Times 13th January 2012 (used with permission)

The Report from the Commission on Assisted Dying was entirely predictable. Its key recommendation - that we legalize assisted suicide for terminally ill adults with less than a year to live- surprised no one. Indeed, what other outcome was likely from an initiative established and funded by leading supporters of the pro-euthanasia ‘Dignity in Dying’? I’m sure Commission members were serious and painstaking in their attempt to listen to the views of significant bodies. But they were not morally or philosophically neutral. Most of them had made up their minds on the issues long before the Commission was convened; many, even the chair, Lord Falconer, had already campaigned for the law to be changed. So it is easy to understand the refusal of the BMA and the 40 other 0rganisations who were asked to give evidence to the Commission but declined; the stated purpose of the Commission was incompatible with their own position.

The response to the Report has also been predictable. It triggered the usual media opportunities for sad and emotive stories. We were reminded, as if we did not already know, of the painful suffering faced by those with deteriorating and debilitating illnesses. We heard organizations opposed to changes in the law outline the inadequacy of the Report’s recommendations, and the assumptions it made. Some commentators called it a ‘propaganda exercise’ or ‘part of a concerted and determined campaign to normalise the idea of euthanasia’. Yet although the overall response has been more negative than positive, the project surely achieved what was intended by its sponsors. It highlighted the possibility of giving very ill people the legal right to choose how they should die.

The conclusions of the Report were reached despite the well-argued submissions of those who had misgivings about loosening the law. Several people who appeared before Commission members took issue with their concepts of autonomy. Baroness O’Neil, for example, argued it was not possible to draft adequate safeguards ‘without invoking misleading and unrealisable fantasies about individual autonomy’. People are not ‘autonomous’, they are always connected to others, not least to the professionals whom they are asking to assist them in suicide. Others challenged the notion of compassion, seeing it as equally applicable to vulnerable, elderly people who may feel they have become a burden on their families and, with legal prohibitions removed, feel under pressure to end their lives. It is significant that organizations that serve the elderly and disabled remain strongly opposed to changing the law on assisted dying. The consensus seems to be that the current law provides the safeguards which the Commission’s proposed replacements do not.

Christian responses to euthanasia used to be centred upon the ‘sanctity of life’; life is given us by God and is held in sacred trust before God. This truth remains, yet carries little weight with those for whom life is intolerable or who have no time for God. Biblical theology goes much further than this, however. To weigh legislation, we also need to draw on our theology of compassion, of justice, of protection of the vulnerable, of the common good. We need laws which go beyond minority individuals and protect all who are elderly, sick or vulnerable. We need laws which show leniency towards those who act unlawfully out of genuine love, but which still require such actions to face scrutiny by police and DPP, and prosecutions brought when necessary. We need laws which defend those who have no voice against coercion, exploitation, or abuse and ensure they have the right to live. Our current law is not perfect, but in a messy world it is probably as good as we can get. It gives us every opportunity of being a compassionate and just society.

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