Assisted dying - three questions for Christians
Anyone wishing to seriously engage with the subject must first wrestle with, and come to a view on, three fundamental questions, writes John Elliston
Few end-of-life issues are more contentious than assisted dying. From the time of Socrates to the present day, passion has fired the debate over the moral and legal validity of assisting a person to, in certain, clearly defined, contexts, end their life. In late May 2021, a Private Member’s Bill to legalise assisted dying as a death choice for terminally ill, mentally competent, adults in their final months of life, was introduced to the House of Lords as a first stage of it entering the statutes. On 26 June 2021, an Assisted Dying Bill was lodged at Holyrood for consideration by the Scottish Parliament. They are the latest in a long line of similar attempts to enshrine assisted dying in law, all of which have failed. So, what has changed?
Comparing the contemporary debate with those of the past, the arguments for and against are almost exactly the same. What has changed, apparently, is the strength of public opinion. Frequent reference is made to a 2019 poll sponsored by the pressure group Dignity for Dying showing that 84 per cent of the general public support the case for assisted dying, including 'broad support across most faith groups'.
However, public opinion is a fickle guide in matters of law and morality. Concern must be expressed about reading too much into one poll of 5,695 people, particularly when the sample of people of faith is actually just a proportion of the stated sample, and the sponsor of the Bill is also the sponsor of that poll. When deciding about the moral and legal validity of aiding the choice of an individual to die, the voice of principled thought and prayerful reflection must always trump the clamour of the anonymous crowd.
Before a view based on principled thought can be formed, the ground must be cleared. Much of the controversy around the legalisation of assisted dying is due to the emotive language that is, uncritically, drawn into the debate. Terms like euthanasia, voluntary euthanasia, assisted suicide and mercy killing are too laden with historical and partisan baggage to be helpful. The term assisted dying is not so tainted.
Simply put, therefore, the question centres upon whether an assisted death should be a legitimate end of life option when palliative care does not offer a terminally ill person a satisfactory answer to their suffering and impending painful demise. It involves an individual making a conscious, informed, decision to end their life prematurely, and being actively assisted in overcoming the obstacles that prevent them from doing so. Accepted, the number of people who might opt for death in this way would likely be relatively small, but the number of takers is far less significant than the fact that the option is available to them.
For a principled debate, it is the head not the heart that must lead. During this last month, two heroic campaigners for the right to an assisted death, Noel Conway and Paul Lamb, have died. Many courageous others have gone before them. No one listening to such individuals pleading for help can fail to be moved as they have sought to contribute to the debate from the perspective of their own suffering.
But, principled decision cannot rest upon emotion. Both Noel and Paul had challenged the current legal position by arguing that the state, by refusing them the choice to die, had breached their human rights. In the law as it stands, however, the individual’s right to choose is not the issue. In 2009, the then Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Starmer, released a policy statement on assisted dying which shifted the judicial focus away from the one choosing to die to the intention of the person providing assistance. He commented: "The policy does not change the law on assisted suicide. It does not open the door for euthanasia. It does not override the will of Parliament. What it does do is to provide a clear framework for prosecutors to decide which cases should proceed to court and which should not.”
Since that date, no one acting out of compassion in helping a cognisant, terminally ill person to die has been prosecuted, and no one is likely to be.
So, the question for principled Christian debate is whether, in end-of-life situations, it is morally and ethically acceptable to assist someone to die. Space will not allow for a full explanation of my view on this and how I journeyed to it. However, anyone wishing to seriously engage with the subject must first wrestle with, and come to a view on, three fundamental questions:
First, whether life is sacred or profane. - One of the principal arguments that those with religious conviction use to resist legalising assisted dying is that it challenges the belief that life is sacred. What the word sacred means in this context is particularly important since the word is also used by many without religious conviction in their own argument against the voluntary hastening of death, where sacred seems to act as a metaphor for the fact that life is just so important and so precious that it should not be tampered with. A Christian may want to say more than this, in which case, the meaning of life as a ‘gift’ of God will need to be fully explored.
Second, whether personal autonomy trumps collective responsibility. Freedom of choice, the ability to make one’s own moral decisions and to be responsible for them, lies at the heart of personal autonomy. Personal autonomy does not, however, remove a person from their accountability to others. In the debate over assisted dying, there is a duty of care to the one who assists that needs to be taken as seriously as the personal autonomy of the one who wants to die. A decision to bring one’s life to an end has to be weighed and reconciled with the impact on society as a whole. It is a difficult assessment to make. Is society damaged if actively assisting individuals to die is part of it?
Third, whether death is conceived as end or beginning. Within the Christian thought-world, both life and death stand within the sphere of God’s love, and there is potentiality in both. Therefore, is to assist someone to die akin to opening a door to let them through, or is it depriving them of an opportunity to find meaning and hope (as Rowan Williams maintained in 2006 when opposing an earlier Assisted Dying Bill)?
Whether legislation allowing for assisted death as an end-of-life option will be passed on this occasion or not remains to be seen. Even if passed, the debate will continue. Just because we can assist (legally) someone to die doesn’t mean we should (morally), and even the belief that we should, does not mean we actually could (practically).
Image | Gregory Hayes | Unsplash
The Revd Dr John Elliston MBE is a retired Baptist minister and hospice chaplain. He currently works for a charity that he began 25 years ago, supporting people with complex needs around housing and addiction (www.700club.org.uk)
Assisted dying - time for change? There is a Christian case to be made for supporting a change in the law, writes Simon Woodman
From The Baptist Times archive:
Euthanasia - can we live without it? A look at Assisted Dying ahead of a Parliamentary debate in 2015, by Chris Goswami
Do you have a view? Share your thoughts via our letters' page.