Monday, August 11, 2014

Assisted dying

I've tried to say something about assisted dying for our September parish magazine. What follows probably involves various forms of plagiarism from the BBC website, from Christian Concern and Giles Fraser and maybe one or two other places.

Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill had its Second Reading on 18th July and is due to move into the Committee Stage. The Bill would allow doctors to prescribe lethal drugs to terminally ill mentally competent adults who are judged to have a settled wish to die, if they are thought to have less than six months to live. Two independent doctors would be required to agree that the patient had made an informed decision.

Former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey said he had changed his mind about the issue and now believed that belief in assisted dying was "quite compatible" with being a Christian. "When suffering is so great, when some patients already know that they are at the end of life, make repeated pleas to die, it seems a denial of the loving compassion that is the hallmark of Christianity to refuse to allow them to fulfil their clearly stated request," he said.

It seems to me that there are all sorts of practical reasons for resisting this proposed legislation. For example, it is hard to say how it might affect the relationship between doctor and patient.

Can doctors really be sure that someone has less than six months to live? Baroness Finlay, a professor of palliative medicine and former President of the Royal Society of Medicine, who cared for dying patients as part of her work for more than 25 years, said: "Let us take a prognosis of six months: there is no accurate test at all. Even a best guess is so surrounded with inaccuracy that the only honest answer to the question, “How long have I got?”, is to say, “I honestly can’t tell”. Even of those thought to be likely to die within 48 hours, about 4% improve and some even go home."

One can imagine the elderly not wanting to be a burden to their family and feeling under pressure to end it all. Of course they are unlikely to tell their relatives that they’ve decided they want to die to spare their loved ones’ feelings since to say so would hurt their loved ones’ feelings! The bill therefore adds to the isolation of those who might already feel alone. The dying can often be exhausted and confused, hardly the best state in which to make a life or death decision. With care sometimes very expensive and the possibility of people making money out of assisted suicide, financial motives might impinge. We might fear what the next step might be if campaigners are able to achieve this change in the law, even if this particular Bill is said to come with safeguards and although we are told it will apply in only a very small number of cases.

And more significantly, I would suggest that from a Christian perspective there are reasons to be against assisted dying, and indeed against suicide in general. The basic assumption of human autonomy – that I have the right to end my life if I want to – is not a Biblical one. Christians believe that God is the giver of life and have traditionally held that it is wrong to deliberately end one’s life. The Lord gives and the Lord takes away. The ending of life is his prerogative. God made us and we belong to him. We are not our own – our lives don’t belong to us as if we should end them when we please.   

In the Bible death is repeatedly seen as an enemy. Although Jesus has defeated death for all who will put their trust in Him, and, we might say, He has tamed death so that it need not be feared, the Christian does not embrace death as a friend. All human life has value and dignity. There are worse things even than terrible suffering. The only “good death” is not necessarily a pain free one. Sadly pain is an inevitable part of life in this fallen world. It is only beyond the grave that God will wipe away every tear from his people’s eyes.   

If Christians are to oppose assisted dying, of course they need to be at the forefront of providing care for the terminally ill, as they often are through the hospice movement and in other ways. Christians believe that special love for the vulnerable and helpless reflects something of the gracious heart of God towards us all. The beautiful selfless sacrificial love which carers often show points us to the dying love of Christ for a helpless world. The Christian may hope for a relatively pain-free death, but above all he pins his hope on Jesus, who is with us as we face our end and who through his resurrection offers us eternal life.      

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