A YouGov poll in 2013 indicated not only that 70% of those responding supported a change in the law to allow assisted dying but that a remarkably high 82% of supporters agreed with the statement that “An individual has the right to choose when and how to die”. This seems pretty convincing. There is a very large body of opinion that seems to favour the ‘right to choose’ dynamic of ethics. ‘Rights based’ decision making comes out of an individualistic foundation of making ethical choices. The freedom to choose is paramount. “It is surely my life that counts. It is really my life at stake.” This is an expression of my own freedom to make the biggest decision in my life (or death).
This is all of course expressed in the background noise of what shapes how we make ethical decisions. The overwhelming noise in our own society is the freedom to choose. This seems to be the overarching dynamic that shapes most of our ‘innate’ responses. It seems to be so ‘right’. It is of course, we are told, my right to decide. Well, not yet, at least in UK law.
Anthony Giddens reflecting on the irony of choice, writes that in contemporary society ‘we have no choice but to choose’ (Modernity and Self-Identity : Self and Society in the Late Modern Age, 1994, p 81). Zygmunt Bauman called choice ‘consumer society’s meta-value, the value with which to evaluate and rank all other values’ (Work, Consumerism and the New Poor, 2001, p 58). So a lack of the freedom to choose is perceived as a lack of freedom to live (or die as in this case). And this is at the heart of this ethical dilemma. My freedom to choose as a right-minded individual to end my own life. It is the pinnacle of this type of ethical decision making: “We may not have had the freedom to decide to be born but we can certainly have the freedom to decide when and how we can die”.
Yet the value of having freedom to choose is not found in simply having the choices available. It is in having the freedom to make the right choices. We often make decisions of choice based on no reference to cost, loss or risk. In buying the goods we want or the services we desire we simply part with the money. Hey presto - it’s mine. But we fail to recognise the limiting effects of our choices on others. How we make the right choice is therefore critical.
It simply cannot be based only on the notion of the freedom and right to choose. It must be based on other values. For instance, one powerful question we can raise about the freedom to choose is about what type of world we wish to be part of and to create. We are not in a world of isolated individuals where the decisions we make impact only us. The decisions we make have an impact. They either release or constrict the freedom and choice of others.
It is part of the human vocation to be choice makers so how do we do this? The Christian faith is about making choices. The freedom that God has given us in making choices is one of the main pillars of the biblical faith. We are free to choose but Scripture gently introduces another possibility: the freedom not to choose for the sake of others, the loss of personal freedom for the freedom of others. Jesus goes further and is even more radical in the overpowering statement that those who ‘lose their life for his sake will find it’. Stating the obvious, this of course is not referring to assisted suicide. It is about forgetting the myth that we, as individuals, are the be all and end all. Once we discover the freedom of giving up who we think we need to be, will will in reality discover who we are in Christ. We are not the focus for ethical decision making. We are not the sole arbiters in making choices - we take into account others and the impact of their freedom and choice-making.
For Christians it is so much more than simply the freedom to choose. We see life as a gift from God, who in Genesis is pictured as moulding humanity from the dust of the earth and breathing his life into them. Becoming human is about living into that reality. The life breathed into us is still being breathed into us daily as we surrender who we are into who God is calling and inviting us to be. Human life bears the image of God. We have a duty to live and ensure all live in the truth that they are bearers of God’s image. Assisted suicide could introduce the ‘duty to die’, the thought that we may have become a burden, not a gift.
The Assisted Dying Bill will introduce a role that the state has never played before - developing the boundaries in which someone else can help a person to die. These boundaries will not only be personal as in the relationship between doctor/nurse and patient. They will inevitably see the invasion of fiscal and practical considerations into the ‘decision’. Extra resources will need to be found to help someone make that decision, resources that could have been placed into palliative care, for instance into the hospice movement. where someone who is dying does so care and dignity. Assisted suicide will in the end be the crudest option to end suffering.
John is the Vicar of St Paul’s, Tupsley and St Andrews, Hampton Bishop in Hereford Diocese. He’s also currently doing Doctoral Studies at Kings College London.