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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Law and Life

The murder of Stephen Lawrence and the report of the Commission on Assisted Dying both highlight, in different ways, the difficulty many of us have in thinking through the relationship between law and life. We no longer agree on the ethical basis of society, which makes it more difficult still.

I was revolted by Stephen Lawrence’s murder but I must confess to uneasiness about some reactions to the Dobson/Norris trial. It is partly that I have difficulty with the dropping of the ‘double jeopardy’ principle which allowed the trial to take place in the first place and the outpouring of visceral hatred in the name of justice which followed*. I don’t see that murdering someone whose skin colour is different is any ‘worse’ than murdering someone whose skin colour is the same — and that holds whether the skin colour we are talking about is black, brown, or white.

Are we in danger of saying, for example, black equals good, white equals bad, or seeing racism where we should perhaps see rather brutality and lawlessness? Have we lost our sense of society being greater than the sum of its parts? Or are we taking the idea of ‘positive discrimination’ to its logical conclusion and favouring some more than others, instead of maintaining that we are all equal under the law? Perhaps a lawyer would comment on this point.

I don’t believe, however, that law is something we can leave to lawyers alone. The laws a society makes for itself, the way in which it applies them, the penalties it exacts for breaking them, are all shapers of that society. They have a directive force even when they don’t affect us individually with compulsive force. What happens when emotion comes into play? Is there a danger that we react to the emotion rather than to the law? It will be interesting to see how the Dobson/Norris trial affects the way in which the Metropolitan Police deals with future murder cases. It will also be interesting to see how the various groups and action bodies that work to eliminate racism deal with future incidents.

What of the Commission on Assisted Dying? It is being reported in the media as a panel of experts which has concluded there is a ‘strong case’ for legislation to allow assisted suicide to those who are terminally ill. It was apparently funded by those who are working for a change in the law, which, if true, calls in question its claim to being objective. Less contentious because demonstrable may be the fact that Canon James Woodward has dissented from the Commission’s conclusions, and the BMA refused to take part at all.

How we think about life will inevitably be translated into law. Murder and suicide are different ways of ending life, but they both assume a right I genuinely believe we don’t have. Can we condemn murder but permit ‘assisted dying’ without getting into a strange moral quagmire where law no longer protects the weak but serves rather to advance the interests of the strong — those who can argue better than we can, or who can make decisions they have decided we can’t or shouldn’t? Ultimately, all these questions are personal, not just abstractions. Is my life as a white woman worth less than yours as a black man or either of our lives worth more than hers as an unborn child or his as an octogenarian? Remember, how we answer those questions will be reflected in our laws. What a responsibility we  bear!

*I am not, in any way, disputing the verdict. Like everyone else, I would like to see all who are guilty of his murder brought to trial and sentenced for their terrible crime.

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