While I’m writing this a bill is being brought to parliament that would allow assisted dying. More specifically it would allow a person helping someone to die of their own free will to avoid being charged with the offence of murder. The contribution Christians are making to the debate rocketed to the front pages this week when the former Archbishop of Canterbury (George Carey) came out in favour of assisted suicide in some circumstances while the present incumbent opposes it.
It is vital that as Christians we think Christianly about this subject which strikes at the very heart of who we are in Christ. But to say this is an easy question or that there is a neat Biblical answer isn’t the case. While doctors tend to oppose this change in the law there is widespread support among the general public, running at more than 80% in successive social attitudes surveys. Medics, however are more divided with around 65% of GPs against.
George Carey’s argument is based on the need for compassion. Jesus was a compassionate leader who took notice of people’s plight at the deepest level. So why shouldn’t we? When a person is dying, in pain and can’t bring their own life to an end what is wrong with helping them to do it? This is always a powerful argument when we look at individual cases. Why should the intense suffering of my father (or whoever) be perpetuated when he would otherwise take his own life. If he doesn’t have the strength to do so surely it is an act of compassion to put him out of his misery.
But can the taking of a life ever be a truly compassionate act? We cannot ask someone from beyond the grave whether they thought we acted in their best interests or not. I would want to be very clear about the limits under which such a decision could be taken.
In what, to my knowledge, is the only example of assisted suicide in the Bible. King Saul asked his armour bearer to run him through. Saul was about to be captured in battle and was scared to the core about the mistreatment he was likely to face if he was taken alive (1 Samuel 31:4-5). It is very hard to draw meaningful parallels with contemporary situations other than the obvious fact that Saul was desperately fearful about this future, fearful enough to want to take his own life. But if you look at the text you’ll see that the armour bearer refused to do the deed.
As a Christian I believe in the intrinsic sinfulness of man. Not a popular theology today, but “we have all sinned and fallen short of God’s glory” says Paul. While it is true that the eternal consequence of our sinfulness was dealt with on the cross, the fact that we have a bias in that direction is something we wrestle with every day (at least I certainly do!). As a result we must take into account the deep conflicts of interest any decision to help someone die can produce in relatives. In my own pastoral practice, for example, I have encountered situations where family members see their inheritance being whittled away by sky high care home fees levied on their sick relatives. In a perfect world we would be able to decide this altruistically and such a thought wouldn’t even enter our minds. But in the world I inhabit the temptation to collude with any suggestion that their relative’s life can be fore-shortened is too much to resist for some relatives.
I was talking to a GP recently who expressed grave concern about how society will be able to handle such a piece of legislation. He had been in the the business long enough to remember the abortion act which was brought into law to handle the ‘wholly exceptional cases’ where a mother’s life was at risk (and a few other rare and tragic situations). The safeguards were all in place (or so we were told) with two doctors having to sign their consent and case notes having to be submitted. We were assured that only a minute fraction of pregnancies would be terminated. But we are not perfect people and we can all too easily manipulate the law to our own perceived advantage. Today we all know how how this law has been abused. Our society has allowed it to be used in wider and wider circumstances – and here’s the rub – we do it ‘on compassionate grounds’.
Much as I would like to think we are capable of making completely rational and dispassionate decisions, our ‘compassion’ will always be tainted by the presence of sin and self-interest. That is the cardinal weakness of any law, however it is framed, and people may die because ‘compassion’ is used to mask much darker motives.
The Bible holds that the life we have been given by God is sacrosanct and therefore inviolable. To accuse doctors of ‘playing God’ is a cheap jibe that doesn’t wash in real life. Our science and technology have given us the ability to make decisions that previously we would have attributed to God’s will. We often act in the place of God and that is a delegated responsibility that we, as human beings and Christians, need to take very seriously indeed.
So for me I want to be Biblical, as well as compassionate and this leads me to oppose this legislation.
But only on balance.