Assisted Dying (No. 2) Bill 2015–16

Parliament reassembles today and on 11 September is expected to have its second reading of Rob Marris M.P.’s bill. You can read the text here: Regular readers will already know what I think about assisted dying/suicide/euthanasia (if you don’t and are interested, a search in the sidebar will soon show you). For once, the ‘slippery slope’ argument seems to me entirely valid. Archbishop Welby is only the latest in a long line of distinguished commentators to call attention to the fact that, if the bill becomes law, it will overturn some fundamental beliefs about life and death. We all know that many people take their ideas of what is right or wrong from what the law does or does not permit, but I wonder how many of those arguing in favour of a change in the law have stopped to consider any of its possible unintended consequences?

If one says that permtting assisted suicide is going to make the elderly, the sick and the disabled liable to come under considerable pressure to ‘do the decent thing’ and make away with themselves, one opens a can of worms about the definition of competence (which is germane to the bill). One also opens a can of worms about how we understand life and death. When the Abortion Act was passed, I remember thinking how outraged the history text-books of my childhood had been about the Roman practice of infanticide but there we were, in the twentieth century, accepting another form of infanticide and passing it off as ‘compassionate’. How outraged we still are at the idea of suttee, but how readily we seem to be accepting the idea that we have a right to end our own lives. Who, really, can decide the level of competence required to determine whether, for example, a depressed young man, otherwise healthy, or someone diagnosed with a terminal illness, is sufficiently able to make a decision? Who will judge what influence may have been brought to bear on them? What of the burden placed upon medical staff? And what of the trust we place in them to do whatever they can to heal and preserve life?

In the public debate on this subject, I have noticed a small but vociferous element which not only decries those of us who argue on religious grounds but also maintains that we have no right to argue as we do, because our understanding of morality and ethics is based on something they do not share. That strikes me as being very dangerous. Some of the worst horrors of the twentieth century were perfectly legal acts, but they were not right. Those who objected to the destruction of Jews, gays and gypsies by the Nazis, for example, often did so because they held to religious belief systems which could not countenance such injustice. If Mr Marris’ bill becomes law, I don’t think it’s fanciful to expect that those of us who base our morality and ethics on our religious beliefs will find our right to speak and act further circumscribed. From being wrong to take a life, it may become wrong to preserve one — especially if the State does not value that life. If you haven’t already done so, please think carefully about this bill and its implications and write to your M.P. Please pray also for those who must debate it on Friday.


Cherishing the Gift of Life

When St Maximilian Kolbe was canonised as a martyr, I was rather dubious. It seemed to me that the pope (St John Paul II) was stretching the traditional definition of martyrdom too far. St Maximilian was, by all accounts, a martyr of charity, but did he die in defence of Catholic truth?  Then again, although I shared his enthusiasm for the latest and best printing equipment, I was not drawn to the Friars of the Immaculate and their particular forms of devotion, nor did I share their particular conception of mission. Wasn’t St Maximilian just a little too alien to be my kind of saint? What a horribly officious little prig I was (and maybe still am)!

I realise now that the witness Maximilian Kolbe gave to the truth of the Cross was immense. He gave his life for another and, in so doing, taught us something important about life itself and the nature of priesthood. He died because he cherished life, not because he saw it as of no consequence, and he fulfilled his priesthood by sacrificing himself as our Lord Jesus Christ sacrificed himself.

I was thinking about this when I heard on the radio that a fellow cancer-sufferer intends to take his own life today at the Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland. I am praying that he may have a change of heart, not because I want him to experience more pain and suffering — I don’t — but because the gift of life is the most beautiful gift any of us ever receives; and it is given us on trust. To choose to end it strikes me as inutterably sad and is symptomatic of the throwaway culture we have embraced so heartily in the West. If life isn’t perfect, scrap it.

In September Parliament will have another Assisted Dying (Suicide) Bill before it*. If passed, those of us with terminal illnesses may well feel pressure to ‘do the decent thing’ and lift a burden from our family/community and the State. Then what of the old, the disabled, the not-very-bright, the socially inept, the criminal, all the imperfect beings that go to make up the definitely perfect world in which we live? We all have a tendency to argue from our own experience and do not always see the wider implications of choices made from a particular perspective. Most of us have probably experienced times when we felt that life was not worth living — when pain, grief and despair sucked everything human from us and left us an empty shell. Most of us will have seen someone we love suffer great pain and anguish. But is choosing to end life the best way of dealing with pain and suffering, or even imperfection as society views it? In his bunker, St Maximilian Kolbe experienced the torment of starvation, thirst and unbearable heat, but he went on, encouraging others, praising God and, yes, cherishing the gift of life. May we think very seriously about how we ourselves do the same.

* A Private Member’s Bill proposed by the Labour MP Rob Marris.