Assisted Dying and Lord Carey’s Mistake

The Catholic Church is very clear about life-death matters. We do not have to take extraordinary means to preserve life, but we don’t have the right to end it because we judge it more compassionate to do so*. To put that in the most personal terms, when I reach the final stage of my illness, which will be painful and nasty, I suspect, there will be no need for the doctors to propose aggressive treatments to ensure poor Brother Ass, my body, goes on for a few days more. I hope there will be some pain relief medication to blunt the edge of the pain I feel; but, from the Catholic perspective, the important point is that God will decide when my life should end, just as he decided when it should begin. All very well for me, you may say, but what about those who don’t share my belief in God or the Catholic Church’s understanding of life-death questions? Isn’t Lord Carey proposing something infinitely kinder, more in keeping with the Christian message of love and hope? He has made it clear that he doesn’t believe in assisted suicide or euthanasia, so in backing Lord Falconer’s bill he is merely making it possible for people to take control of their lives in peculiarly difficult and painful circumstances.

My argument would be that Lord Falconer’s bill is deeply flawed. When one is ill oneself, one is very conscious of the burden one places on others. Any decent person would want to ease that burden, but opting for assisted dying is, I think, very questionable. One can be mentally capable of making decisions yet emotionally too vulnerable to make a rational decision. Again, it is striking that Lord Carey talks about the pain of watching someone one loves suffering — the onlooker’s pain, not the pain of the one actually sick or dying. In the West we don’t like seeing pain. We try to shut it out, eliminate it; but that is not what compassion is. Compassion is sharing the pain, accompanying the other through the valley of darkness and the shadow of death. That takes guts and faith in equal measure. We can protest that we don’t have such faith; that such courage is beyond us; but we won’t know until we try.

I would agree that not all suffering is necessarily redemptive. It certainly isn’t always noble or dignified. I have watched people die in terrible circumstances, but I still hold to the belief that as human beings we are more than the sum of our parts. Dying a good death means more than dying ‘easily’ or ‘comfortably’. For a Christian, or at any rate for this particular Christian, it means dying in union with Jesus Christ our Saviour, as and when he wills. Just as his death on the Cross was his last great act of surrender to the Father, so our own death will be the most important act of our life. I don’t want to fudge mine, do you?

•See, for example, the Declaration on Euthanasia here: http://www.euthanasia.com/vatican.html

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22 thoughts on “Assisted Dying and Lord Carey’s Mistake”

  1. You very ably put my thoughts into words. I was saddened to read Lord Carey’s statement, because it seems to give a false hope to those who will believe that the Church of England is changing it’s stance on assisted dying, when Arch Bishop Justin has made it very clear that the Churches position is very much akin to the Catholic Position.

    Off course it troubles me that people live in terrible pain and anguish, which their family and friends share in by proxy, but somehow the thing in my mind that overcomes the troubled thoughts is that in God’s eyes, all life, given by him is precious, and it’s within his gift, not ours, when it comes to it’s natural end.

    My prayers for you as you continue to struggle with the condition that continues to cause you pain, discomfort and that you acknowledge may well be life defining or life ending. That God through Jesus Christ will accompany you and in the word of the Psalmist, enfold you in his wings of comfort and love.

  2. Everything you have written covers my own personal feelings regarding assisted dying. I just wanted to say though the part where you express the difficult task of accompanying someone you love through the valley of death struck such a deep chord. When i lost my beautiful mum last year at 62 to cancer. I stayed with her the whole of the night before. I couldnt and didnt want to let her make her final journey alone. It was the hardest thing i have ever done, but you have now expressed that time for me in such a perfect way that i can truly feel less pain knowing i was right to be with her regardless of how it felt to me. Thank you. I pray all our journeys may be shared with those who love us with Christ at our side.

  3. Thank you for writing this so bravely and honestly. I’m sure that if enough time was given to support the work of Britain’s wonderful hospices, instead if arguing over whether Assisted Dying was necessary, the standard if care would be so high that any other means of departing would be laughable. You are in my prayers, Sister. May our Mother care for you. God Bless.

  4. I was I admit pleased to read what Lord Carey said. Until recently I took the same view on assisted dying as the Church. Now having watched my husband dying in great pain and suffering I realise that if I got to that stage I would want to end my life….not that I don’t want to be a burden but because I am a coward….the thought of suffering what he suffered is terrible to me so if an option was there and the conditions dire I might just want to take it. I would like to think that I had the option!
    For him I had put into place a do not resuscitate instruction…I would hope that someone would do the same for me. You are an incredibly brave woman Catherine. I regret that I am not…..

  5. This is the I want article….Digitalnun has made their beliefs very clear..mentally capable of making the decision but too vulnerable to made a rational one…the pain of watching someones suffering but not concerned about the dying persons pain.This is where the problem lies. People themselves should have their own choice, not have it forced on them by the law and others thinking.Fine if others dont want it but withholding the choice others want to make is cruel.I have seen nothong but love and concern for the dying person and families keeping their own suffering to themselves to help that person in their final days.The person writing this article should be ashamed for trying to guilt people into choosing their decision.People often say you wouldnt treat an animal like that but aparently we dont give the same consideration for humans. We set up meat factories etc so that cruelty is kept to a minimum when they die, but leave people to lie long deaths. Painkillers dont take all pain and suffering away. This is one sided ,your side.

  6. Dear Sister,
    I pray that you are wrong; not about the assisted suicide issue, but the issue of dying in pain and it being nasty. We have a God of surprises and His greatest surprise is that He allows us to live in the moment in ways we could never comprehend. I pray that this moment for you is truly wonderful, free from any of the fears of the next moment, or the memories of the moments just gone. That it is so filled with peace and love that you are overwhelmed with the greatest of all pain relief and reassurance. X

  7. I profoundly disagree with Carol’s criticism but I don’t want to turn this into a debate, so I’ll leave it there. What a wonderful, wise article from Digitalnun, whom I’ve never been prouder to call a friend.

    • I too disagree with the other Carol’s comment, hence I have added an initial. To the other Carol, I would say, I am sorry that you feel this way. The law is not there to force a decision on you, but to protect you from the decisions of others, which will move from assisted suicide to elected suicide, to determining whose life has value. In that begins the judgement on who is of what worth to the human race, financially or otherwise. Then the true suffering begins as individuals and families are left to argue the true value of life. The pain and suffering that ensues is immense because it involves many people and it is generational.

      We are not animals and it is our conscious awareness of all human emotions, good and not so good, which marks us out from the other animals. How we chose to act and think also marks us out. We have a hospice movement which is skilled in relieving pain and helping people to live fully again. Suffering of any kind is finite, it will cease.

      We have to teach the next generation the true sanctity of life if what and who we are mean anything to the universe. We, and the life force in us, are too precious do do otherwise. Without living God’s purpose we would all sucumb to anamlistic behaviours eventually (peace my friend)

  8. Thanks you for this perspective. I was moved by Pulencs Dialogues des Carmelites earlier this year, and intrigued by the whole thing about the sister superior’s death. There may well have been eighteenth century superiors who would have felt her death was all she deserved, where her younger sisters (in the opera) disagreed and saw it as in some sense redemptive of others who had had better deaths than they deserved. That said, isn’t one problem that different people have different senses of what “a good death” would be?

    • Thank you. As you can see, I’m not arguing individual points, But it may interest you, vis-vis the Carmelites, that the Benedictines of Cambrai, from whom we trace our monastic descent, shared the same prison at Compiegne with them. Indeed, one of my kinswoman, D. Anselma Anne, was one of the four English nuns who died from the hardships they endured there.

  9. Wow. Preach it, Sister.
    All of this, and especially this:
    “we don’t like seeing pain. We try to shut it out, eliminate it; but that is not what compassion is. Compassion is sharing the pain”
    Great stuff. And your courage to do death well inspires me. (To quote Oscar Wilde?? Someone else?, ‘I’m not afraid of death. I just don’t want to be there when it happens’…)

  10. Your words strike such a powerful, compassionate chord. However, I question why God allows (some of) us to die a painful, nasty death, and not others. Is this truly what His good and perfect will is (for some)? My prayer is that whatever life is before us, we can live each day with grace and mercy, prepared and able to face our God when it is the right time to do so. I agree with others that the role of the Hospice movement should be much more in our thinking and political doing. My local hospice does a superb job of caring for those facing death – and also caring for those struggling to support their loved ones.

  11. Thank you all very much for your comments, and all those that came to me via email and Twitter.

    I don’t want to answer individual points as the argument could become too personal and I appreciate this is a deeply-felt subject. However, there are three points I’d want to underline:

    1. The fact that advances in medical science mean that it is possible to extend life does not mean that one is obliged to accept them. Thus, in my own case (incurable cancer), I could refuse chemotherapy, antibiotics, even an oxygen mask if I wanted to. I could ask for opiates for my pain that would result, as a side effect, in the shortening of my life. That is different from taking a drug with the intention of killing myself. The Declaration on Euthanasisa to which I linked says all this clearly (and mercifully briefly for a Vatican document). I would also point out that what we are talking about is actually suicide rather than ‘assisted dying’ but I used Lord Carey’s phrase for the post.

    2. The legal consequences of Lord Falconer’s bill have a twofold aspect.
    First, they will affect the individual at the point where he or she is at their weakest. Law is meant to protect the vulnerable. I am concerned about the way in which individuals may feel pressurised to accept death because they feel, or are made to feel, they are a burden or worthless. The bill’s provisions do not seem to me to offer adequate protection. Choice, in this context, is a choice of the strong rather than the weak, isn’t it?
    Second, if the bill becomes law, it will affect the relationship between doctor and patient, introducing a doubt about trustworthiness that I myself don’t think we need.

    3. Will one of the unintended consequences of a change in the law be to reduce the resources made available to the dying, e.g. hospices? I don’t want to draw analogies with the 1967 Abortion Act, but it has certainly made me think.

  12. Excellent points as always. Lord Carey’s words have been troubling me since I read them (in disbelief).
    My continuing prayers for yourself and D.Lucy.

  13. I agree, obviously, with all you write. I have watched people die, sat wth them, experienced it as most don’t these days in the UK where it is hidden away and not part of the normal fabric of life. I have also faced the prospect of my own death twice in my life.

    The process of dying,often is a most wonderful and joyous loving time. Embrace it, welcome it. Offer it to The Lord.

    Although this law if passed wouldn’t affect me in Scotland I am one of those who due to my many ailments and “burden” issues could be made in my weaker moments to made to feel selfish in not setting my family free of the care burden I place upon them.

    I certainly will let no Dr prolong my life and even now the morpine I have had to take to alleviate pain I finally rejected as I preferred not to live with the side effects.

    I have included all this for those who might see opposition to this bill to be easily made while one is in good health.

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