"We do not know how to deal with death," Archbishop Vincent Nichols of Westminster told a congregation of the sick yesterday. But, he added, "fear cannot be our guide." He sees fear of death and of the pain and indignity which precede it as the real reason for the current drive to legalise assisted suicide in the UK, and why there is a growing openness to the idea in British public opinion. (Close to half of those questioned in a recent BBC poll said that if a person is in chronic pain or suffering a terminal illness, another person -- doctor or family member, say -- should be allowed in law to help them to die).
I saw this attitude in the responses to a recent Guardian piece I wrote arguing against the author Terry Pratchett's case for legalizing assisted death. Pratchett had given a BBC-televised lecture in which he proposed that applicants for an early exit would need to convince a tribunal that their motivations were proper and they were not under pressure. Behind his arguments, I said, was an appalling assumption -- that we can and should control the manner of our death. To allow us to do so in law, I argued, was to shift the whole framework of our caring professions in such a way that those wishing to die a "natural" or "religious" death would soon have to justify themselves to those in control of budgets who could reasonably assert that dying was a pointless business which should be cut short for everyone's benefit.
What I learned by writing that article and reading the responses to it -- one of which wished me a long and painful passing -- was that the religious argument against assisted death does not cut much ice with folk who believe that death has no significance beyond putting a stop to life; and that the process of dying - often long and painful, and usually humiliating, a journey of crucifying renunciation -- seems to them something that should be avoided; and that anyone who thinks otherwise is a masochist, sadist or religious freak.
Thus Archbishop Nichols' compelling description of the point of dying --
For those of our faith, this is the moment when, whether we are weak and struggling, tranquil and awake, or in some other inner space, we hand ourselves over to our loving Father. This moment is central to our pilgrim journey. We practise for it, day by day, rehearsing our final act of trust with smaller daily acts of abandonment to God, in prayer, in kindness towards others, and in our sacramental life.
-- will invite a vigorous assent from believers, but a snort of derision from those who have no sense of or belief in God. For those who think in this way the religious argument against allowing assisted suicide amounts to the imposition of a cultural norm ("dying is a meaningful journey") on those who cannot agree with it ("dying is something a civilized society should minimize"). Furthermore, they argue, the retention of this imposition is resulting in bizarre miscarriages of justice in which compassionate mothers heeding their dying children's wishes to put them out of their agony are prosecuted in law.
At General Synod last week, the Archbishop of Canterbury deftly answered this point about the Church "imposing" its views:
You will hear many saying that the church's opposition to legalised assisted dying is precisely an attempt to "determine for the whole of society what legal freedoms should be granted"; which would imply that the balance of liberties here comes out against the church. I think this is wrong. The church does not assume that it has the right to impose any solution; but it will argue fiercely, so long as legal argument continues, that granting a "right to die" is not only a moral mistake, as I believe myself, but the upsetting of a balance of freedoms.
The question isn't about disadvantage to the church (no one – yet – denies the church's freedom to have a view and even a discipline about this), but about the liberties of some of the more vulnerable of the general population. The freedom of one person to utilise in full consciousness a legal provision for assisted suicide brings with it a risk to the freedom of others not to be manipulated or harassed or simply demoralised when in a weakened condition. Once the possibility is there, it will not only be utilised by the smallish number of high-profile hard cases but will also create an ethical framework in which the worthwhileness of some lives is undermined by the legal expression of what feels like public impatience with protracted dying and "unproductive" lives.
I don't think anyone in this hall would be unmoved by some of the agonising cases that have been in the public eye lately ... [T]he anxieties are also about our own future and our own capacity to bear prolonged pain and disability. But most of us here, I suspect, would say that the balance of liberties still comes out against a new legal framework, and in favour of holding to the principle – not that life should be prolonged at all costs, but that the legal initiating of a process whose sole or main purpose is to end life is again to cross a moral boundary, and to enter some very dangerous territory in practical terms. Most of us would still hold that the current state of the law, with all its discretionary powers and nuances about degrees of culpability in extreme cases, serves us better than an opening of the door into provision for the legal ending of lives.
But still, the Church's public intervention in this question needs to go a lot further than simply defending the current prohibition in law. It needs to have a vision for the care of the sick and dying, and to demonstrate the link between that care and the value and dignity of human life in general. That's why Archbishop Nichols' discreet criticisms of the National Health Service (NHS) for failing to respect the spiritual dignity of the dying are well aimed.
Even the most restricted of lives is lived in transcendence by virtue of being human. If we fail to see this and honour it, then we not only fail to respect a person: we do that person violence. There is a hidden violence in so many of our systems, even those of care, because their operational mode is reductionist. If we reduce death to a clinical event and manage it through a series of standard procedures then we do not deal with death well, either clinically or humanly.
The vicious circle here needs to be named. The drive towards legalizing assisted death is partly due to the lack of proper palliative care and other forms of assistance which the sick and dying need. In countries where euthanasia is allowed -- Holland and Belgium -- the absence of hospices was one of the factors leading to a change in the law. Yet palliative care is now even more primitive in those countries as a consequence of the euthanasia law -- something recently admitted by one of the Dutch politicians behind it.
When people refer to the "secularization" of Europe, they mean that Christian moral and ethical assumptions can no longer be taken for granted as being embedded in the legal framework. The case against a law allowing assisted death cannot be made, therefore, from the assumption that dying is meaningful, and should be out of our control. It needs to be argued not just on the basis of conflicting freedoms and rights, but on the evidence that a change in the law does not just unseat one ethical framework. It enthrones another.
Some slopes, in other words, really are slippery.