I remember reading of Jean-Dominique Bauby, editor of French fashion magazine Elle. Dominique suffered a stroke aged 42. Paralyzed, speechless and only able to move his left eyelid, he used this rudimentary movement to dictate an entire book. Here he describes an occasion where he is taken out in his wheelchair with his two children. It’s Father’s Day …
“… While I have become something of a zombie father, Theophile and Celeste are very much flesh and blood, energetic and noisy. I will never tire of seeing them. ….As we walk Theophile dabs with a Kleenex at the thread of saliva escaping my closed lips. His movements are tentative, at once tender and fearful as if he were dealing with an unpredictable animal. As soon as we slow down Celeste cradles my head in her bare arms, covers my forehead with noisy kisses and says over and over “you’re my dad, you’re my dad” as if in an incantation. Today is Father’s Day. Until my stroke we had felt no need to fit this made-up holiday into our emotional calendar. But this time we spend the whole of this symbolic day together, affirming that even a rough sketch, a shadow, a tiny fragment of a dad, is still a dad”.
It is heart-rending, and it made me realise that the value of a human life is sometimes only fully realised by those who love us.
Even a tiny fragment of a dad is still a dad
But the heartache extends in both directions.
Well-known campaigner Bob Cole ended his life at the Swiss Dignitas Clinic in Switzerland in 2015. He suffered from aggressive lung cancer, bent double in pain, and crouching like an animal. “That’s no life”, he said, “I should be able to die with dignity in my own country, in my own bed. The law needs to change”.
Cole was followed by many others suffering terrible and incurable illnesses but there are even more who, due to the shattering extent of their condition, could not make the journey to Switzerland. So why can’t a person of sound mind, in terrible suffering and close to death end their own life? After all, we wouldn’t allow an animal to suffer in this way.
That’s the position of UK parliamentarian Baroness Meacher who, on October 25th, achieved a second reading of her bill in the House of Lords to provide adults who are terminally ill help to die. The bill is strongly supported by others, including Lord Field of Birkenhead, who is himself terminally ill. Field is now in a hospice and was too ill to attend parliament, so his words were read out by Baroness Meacher.
At the same time, doctors at the British Medical Association (BMA) voted this Summer to change their position on assisted dying from “we are against” to “we are neutral”. The motion was narrowly carried by 49% for, 48% against.
What’s wrong with this bill?
In some cases, there may be nothing wrong with it, BUT changing the law leads to further and further changes. In 2002 when Euthanasia was legalised in Holland, nobody imagined that, some years later, a mother suffering severe tinnitus and with two children would be legally killed. There’s always a “slippery slope”.
I believe it’s valid to compare this bill with the 1967 abortion act. This also was initially brought in as a last resort for exceptional cases. However, today, we are all aware of the high rates of abortions at various stages of pregnancy. Euthanasia may start off as the exception but runs the high risk of becoming normalised or even expected of people in some situations. Imagine a situation where an elderly or terminally person feels under pressure to relieve their family and friends of the financial and emotional cost of caring for them.
But there is a second, simpler reason why we should not pass this bill: people change their minds. There are cases of dementia sufferers who willingly sign a directive to be euthanised. However, when their situation deteriorates to a point where the directive is about to be applied, they change their mind or are no longer able to confirm their wishes in either direction. Even people with all their faculties change their minds: Alison Davies wanted to die for 10 years but had a change of heart even though her suffering continued.
As the above Guardian article says: “legalising euthanasia might resolve one ethical conundrum, but it opens a can of others – most importantly, where the limits of the practice should be drawn”. And, in a recent letter to The Times, experts from hospitals and universities in Oregon and Canada, where assisted dying has been legal for years, highlight a problem of unintended coercion.
Why is this a discussion for our time?
- Medical technology has caused huge improvements in our care, but there are consequences. For example between 1991 and 2001 UK life expectancy increased by 2.2 years. But in the same period, healthy life expectancy increased by only 0.6 years. Essentially, there is an ever-growing period at the end of our lives during which we can expect to be alive but chronically ill*.
- Aging populations – the baby boomers, born just after the war, is the biggest generation ever. They are now entering old age in vast numbers. Looking forward, the UK Government Actuary Department calculates that in 70 years there will be thousands of Britons aged over 110*.
- Choice – we live in a world where we expect to choose everything, my kids’ school, my supermarket, my church, my pension provider. Death is the last thing we cannot choose ….. but we try.
Western countries that allow Euthanasia include Holland, Belgium, Luxembourg, Switzerland, and several US states. Spain passed their assisted dying law last year.
Does the Bible offer an answer?
In this case, I don’t think it does, and there are purposeful, conscientious people of faith on both sides of the debate (although most seem to oppose any change in the law). One thing we must never do is oversimplify the discussion. It’s very easy to quote clichés like “life is sacred”, but this is unhelpful, simplistic, and also open to the question, “why should such a statement only cover the length of life?” In other words: why is only quantity of life sacred? Why isn’t quality of life also sacred? Such statements can also minimise people’s suffering, (and, in any case, “life is sacred” is not a phrase that occurs in the Bible. Similarly, the commandment “thou shalt not kill” was never meant for situations where a person is asking to die.
‘life is sacred’ is not a phrase that occurs in the Bible
What we do get from the Bible is the utmost need for compassion and that giving compassion will often be at our cost. All sides in this debate agree that the law should minimize suffering and maximize wellbeing. But we must choose between the rock and the hard place. I think our current laws on assisted dying are imperfect but as good as they can be. Here assisted dying is illegal … yet often possible eg through increased dosage of morphine. In addition, to date, several hundred Britons have broken UK law by helping relatives go to Switzerland for an assisted death, but none have been prosecuted. Lastly palliative care is not perfect, but it is often effective in minimising at least physical suffering.
The slippery slope always starts with a small shift, changing people’s perception slightly, so that we begin to view those with devastating illnesses differently, and they begin to view themselves differently.
We can live without that.
* Figures from Is There a Christian Case for Assisted Dying, Paul Badham
If you found this article useful, try Why does God allow bad things to happen?
This post was updated and re-purposed from an original post on this website published in 2015
This article was also published by Premier Christianity