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We must resist attempts to introduce Assisted Suicide

Peter Ladd

Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia 28p129 2 1t
“Even at 65, I don’t want to die. I really don’t want to die. I just can’t afford to live…MAID [Medical Assistance in Dying] is the only choice I can see for a way out.”
Les Landry, 65, interviewed in the New Atlantis, December 2022

If you’ve been following the news in recent weeks, you’ll have noticed increasing coverage of the debates around Assisted Suicide recently. With public consultations open in Jersey and the Isle of Man, attempts to change the law in Scotland, and now a further consultation in Westminster on the topic as well, there is deeper scrutiny on countries around the world where assisted suicide has been legalised and a proliferation of opinion pieces from a variety of perspectives in the national press. These next few months are likely to be crucial in determining in which direction Britain will be going.

We care deeply about the issue of Assisted Suicide at CARE for a number of reasons, whether it be protecting some of the most vulnerable in our society or affirming the worth and inherent dignity and value in the lives of everyone (and we genuinely mean everyone).

I’m aware that this is a deeply personal topic for many of us; there will be few reading this who have not been affected (in one way or another) by death. Personal testimonies and stories (as we recognise in other areas of our Christian life) have immense power, and when advocates do speak in favour of changing the law, it is often after they have been shaped by their own experience of that of a beloved family member.

As Christians, we want to acknowledge and deeply empathise with the pain people feel, even more so than our opponents do.

“Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.”
Romans 12: 15

Suffering is an evil: as Christians, we believe it is a sign of something that has gone wrong in this world, and it will be banished from God’s new creation. We want to alleviate it as much as we can (famously, palliative care grew out of overt Christian roots). We worship a Jesus who wept at his friend’s tomb and who was deeply troubled at the suffering of those around him (the Greek word the Gospel-writers normally use literally means he ‘felt it in his guts’), and who didn’t just heal the sick, but sent his disciples out to do the same.

But as Christians, we also want to make wise decisions for the good of society, and to tell the world a better story for all (including those at the end of their lives): a story of a God who gives life and destroys death, a God who who defends the weak and the vulnerable, and who loves us intimately and wants the best for us and for our society.

It’s important to understand exactly what is being proposed on matters like assisted suicide: the APPG for Dying Well found that 57% of people in the UK do not actually know what assisted suicide is. Although pro-assisted suicide campaigning groups like to use the term ‘Assisted Dying’, this is misleading, a euphemism used to refer to the supply of lethal drugs to people so that the recipients might end their own lives. It does not refer to the withdrawing of treatment (which is already legal), or even patients (of sound mind) asking their treatment to be stopped (which is also legal).

So to reject assisted suicide does not mean we advocate for artificially preserving life at all costs: in fact, the esteemed preacher Martyn Lloyd-Jones eventually refused further treatment in hospital, complaining to his doctor, “You are keeping me from the glory.”

In short, assisted suicide is the wilful ending of life prematurely, so that nature does not take its course.

As Christians, we believe that life is ultimately a gift from God, who not only creates life, but also sustains and preserves, and even takes away, life. Life and existence are not of our own making, but God’s. The prophet Jeremiah once declared:

“I know, O Lord, that a man’s life is now his own”
Jeremiah 10: 23

Indeed, as Christians, we believe that not only are we created by God, but that he lives inside us as believers through his Holy Spirit: what we do with our bodies matters. We are not our own, but we are temples of the Spirit, bought at a price, and we are to steward our physical bodies accordingly. The apostle Paul, writing about sexual immorality, notes the importance of treating our bodies well in 1 Corinthians 6:

“Flee from sexual immorality. All other sins a person commits are outside the body, but whoever sins sexually, sins against their own body. Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honour God with your bodies.”
1 Corinthians 6: 18-20

The topic may be different, but the principle still applies: “honour God with your bodies”. We are ultimately answerable to God, and the taking of life is ultimately his prerogative. The theologian John Stott makes this point forcefully:

“The proper name for this frame of mind is not autonomy but hubris, presumption before God. Although the lines of demarcation between God’s responsibility and ours are not always sharp, and although God does call us into a privileged partnership with himself, yet we human being may not trespass into his territory or assume his prerogatives.”
John Stott, Issues Facing Christians Today

It’s important to recognise at this point that people who don’t believe in God are likely to respond by saying that they believe their lives are their own: as they don’t believe in a Creator, they don’t believe they have anyone to whom they are accountable. The actor Sir Patrick Stewart (a patron of Dignity in Dying, a lobby group for assisted suicide) said:

“We have no control over how we arrive in the world but at the end of life we should have control over how we leave it.”
Sir Patrick Stewart

In fact, arguments around the sanctity of life hold very little truck for those of no faith and are now sometimes used to write the opinions off as religious zealots, even by government officials (for that reason, we are advising against you referring to it in your responses to any consultations!). The noted Times commentator Matthew Parris made this very point this week, that he wasn’t interested in the opinions of the religious.

Yet none of us are truly our own, even on an atheistic worldview. As the adage goes, ‘No man is an island’: we do not exist in isolation, and one person’s actions have repercussions for another. Western society has made as its ultimate virtue human freedom and human autonomy; but we are not fully free (and that is a very good thing!). Even those who don’t believe that we are not free to behave how we like when it harms others or the world around us.

And it is here that the debate is now truly in earnest: does assisted suicide legislation harm the most vulnerable? Do safeguards really work? What is going on in other parts of the world where legislation has already been introduced?

It has been fascinating to read opinion pieces from prominent media commentators in recent weeks who used to be pro-assisted suicide and have now changed their mind based on what has been occurring in places where legislation has already been introduced (in particular, I’d recommend these pieces by Alex Massie and Sonia Sodha).

Canada is particularly making headlines at the moment: having introduced its Medical Assistance in Dying (MAiD) programme in 2016, Assisted Suicide already, within just 6 years, makes up 3.3% of deaths. Within 5 years, legislation was being investigated about initiating assisted suicide for children.

Although plans in Canada to allow Assisted Suicide for mental suffering have been put on hold, this is thought to be just a temporary reprieve, with the expansion still planned to take place. There have been numerous stories of safeguards failing, with reports of people (such as the man quoted in the introduction to this piece) ultimately choosing assisted suicide because they could not afford healthcare, or choosing assisted suicide as an alternative to homelessness. Perhaps most shocking of all was the recent story of a Canadian Paralympian, who after complaining of her difficulties in getting a stairlift installed in her home, was asked whether she had contemplated Assisted Suicide as an alternative.

Many in the disabled community are particularly fearful about the potential introduction of Assisted Suicide legislation: In Oregon in 2020, 53% who received lethal medication were concerned about being a burden on their families, friends, or caregivers, and in Belgium, hundreds of people have been euthanised for non-lethal conditions such as deafness or incontinence. The Paralympian and Baronness Tanni Grey-Thompson, a staunch opposer of Assisted Suicide, wrote of her fear for the Times back in 2013:

“Anyone who is inclined to discount such fears should read the report of Lord Falconer’s self-styled “commission on assisted dying”: it is on the recommendations of this unofficial and self-appointed group that his Private Member’s bill rests. Their report recommends that physician-assisted suicide should not be offered to people with disabilities who are not terminally ill “at this point in time”. It is those italicised words that send a chill down the spine of many people with physical disabilities.”
Baroness Grey-Thompson

There is an assumption - from many who are able-bodied - that the lives of those who are disabled are not “full” and in some cases not worth living. Yet that is absolutely not how they see it themselves.

Stories from other regions around the world shock us (and make us genuinely grieve for the lives lost for such futile reasons), whether it be Oregon (often cited as a positive example by lobbyists) allowing assisted suicide for those with anorexia, the euthanasia of children in the Netherlands or the marked increase of suicide rates in regions where assisted suicide has been introduced.

But they also expose broader deficiencies in the healthcare systems of those regions too: In Canada, less than half of those who participate in assisted suicide or euthanasia see a palliative care team. The average growth in palliative care cases was far slower in countries which had brought in assisted dying than those without it (indeed, there was no growth whatsoever in palliative care in Belgium or the Netherlands from 2012 to 2019).

When we are in the midst of great suffering - whether terminal or otherwise - what we need above all is care. We might think of the story of Elijah, mentally exhausted after being hunted by Jezebel.

“He came to a broom bush, sat down under it and prayed that he might die. “I have had enough, Lord,” he said. “Take my life; I am no better than my ancestors.” Then he lay down under the bush and fell asleep. All at once an angel touched him and said, “Get up and eat.” He looked around, and there by his head was some bread baked over hot coals, and a jar of water. He ate and drank and then lay down again…Strengthened by that food, he traveled forty days and forty nights until he reached Horeb, the mountain of God.”
1 Kings 19: 4-8

Elijah may have prayed for death: but God didn’t grant it. Instead he gave him care.

Although there are a small number of tragic cases where someone is in great pain that cannot be medically relieved, the overwhelming majority of deaths are peaceful and calm, particularly in light of huge developments in Palliative Care medicine.

As of March 2022, for the first time in NHS history, Palliative Care has become a legal right for anyone in England and Wales. Baroness Ilora Finlay of Llandaff, a professor of palliative care medicine and author of the amendment, said:

“This change is incredibly important. For the first time the NHS will be required to make sure that there are services to meet the palliative care needs of everyone for whom they have responsibility in an area. People need help early, when they need it, seven days a week — disease does not respect the clock or the calendar”.
Baroness Finlay

This is where we should be directing our energies, rather than debating assisted suicide legislation for which we do not know the consequences (although if other countries are anything to go by, we can guess where it might lead!).

So we do sincerely recognise the agony of pain and suffering. We long - with all creation - for the day when there will be no need for palliative care because death and pain have ceased. But we also recognise reality in this broken world: our lives are not our own (whether on a Christian or an atheistic worldview) and we must seek to protect the most vulnerable.

But also, as Christians, we worship a God who understands. Jesus Christ knew what it was to suffer spiritually, mentally and physically: feeling forsaken by God, abandoned by his friends, and crucified on a cross, our God has experienced death, and death in all its fullness. He has gone through this process himself.

I’m reminded of these words, written by a friend of mine in memory of her brother, who went to be with the Lord aged only 30.

“Hurting one, take heart
For your king will walk beside
With each rising sun
Every grace he will provide
In the hardest day, he will never forsake
For he knows your grief, and he feels your pain
When the world gives way, Jesus will remain.”
Liv Chapman and Michael Morrow

"In the hardest day, he will never forsake, for he knows your grief, and he feels your pain. When the world gives way, Jesus will remain.” Amen.

The Westminster Health and Social Care Committee is running an inquiry into the current law on assisted suicide and euthanasia. At the moment, assisting someone to commit suicide is illegal and so is euthanasia. At CARE, we support the current law. The Inquiry is asking for individuals to share their views. We’ve produced a short guide to help you do so. Please consider submitting a response by 20 January.

Respond to the Assisted Suicide Inquiry

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