The Right to Live and the Quality of Life

Yesterday we reeled from one painful disclosure to another: the U.S. Ambassador to Libya murdered, the Hillsborough cover-up revealed for what it was, more than 300 people burned to death in a factory fire in Pakistan. This morning came another, a man with Down’s syndrome who has had a no-resuscitation order imposed on him without his family’s consent. You can read a summary of the case on the BBC website: http://bbc.in/PcRWpr.

Libya, Pakistan, Hillsborough are all instances of a terrible loss of life attributable to human malice, greed or incompetence. They were preventable, and we feel the pain of the fact that they were not prevented; but how do we feel about the man whose case the BBC has mentioned? We hear a great deal about the right to die, and the appointment of a minister who seems to think that such a right exists and should be given legal form sent a shiver down the spines of those of us who think otherwise. We recognize the very complex questions that ‘unbearable suffering’ raises as my post on Tony Nicklinson’s case made clear. But we are not talking about assisted suicide or a right to kill here, rather the right to live, which is one of the few rights we actually possess. There is something peculiarly sinister about the idea of health professionals deciding, without reference to the wishes of the person or family concerned, that another human being’s right to life is somehow compromised by their physical and mental disabilities.

The Church does not require extraordinary means to be employed to prolong life, but it can be difficult to decide what are ordinary and extraordinary means in individual cases. The problem here is surely not so much the means as the underlying assumption that this person has less right to live than another. Of course the decision wasn’t made as coldly as that, of course the healthcare professionals acted as they thought best, taking into account ‘quality of life’ and the cost to a beleagured NHS of continuing care, but we seem to have forgotten that quality of life is a nebulous thing at best and ultimately human lives cannot be valued in pounds and pence.

There are no easy answers. We may ourselves one day be in a position of utter dependence on others, and unless there is genuine respect for our humanity, irrespective of judgements about our quality of life, we too may find ourselves facing death a little earlier than we expected. Selfish? Of course; but sometimes only putting ourselves into another’s position shows us the true horror of what is being done. Let us pray for all concerned.

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