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Foolishness to Greeks: A reflection on the recent attempt to change the law on Assisted Dying

14th September 2015

The defeat of the Marris Bill at its second reading last Friday in the House of Commons was of immense significance. Through the heart of this debate ran themes which are shaping wider public policy in our nation.

Whilst it was wholly right to approach this debate with prayer, humility and compassion for those who suffer to the point of wanting to end their life, we should not be naive about what this represented at the root of the Bill. It was an attempt by the secular, liberal elite to enshrine in law their individualistic interpretation of the meaning of life: the idea that ending human existence is a matter of subjective will and choice. It really is that stark.

Life and death are weighty matters; we know they are at the very centre of the Christian faith. We believe in a God, who is the author of life. God’s son conquered death, rising from the dead to transform our lives now and for eternity. Thus, this debate could not be avoided; the concerns it raised are central and not marginal to what we believe and hold dear.

There were a number of reasons Christians on the Left proposed a vision of life which precludes us going down this unwelcome road. The outcome in Parliament was welcome and I summarise the reasons why I was opposed to the Bill.

Theological objections                      

St. Paul’s dialogue with Greek philosophers in the Areopagus is instructive for this debate both in terms of context and content. He was witnessing to the living God, a giver of life to a pagan, intelligent, sophisticated audience.

The foundation of opposition to the argument for assisted suicide is rooted in a theistic worldview. It is far from incidental that we believe in God; it is ‘fundamental’. For our God ‘….gives all men life and breath and everything else’ (Acts 17v25). Indeed this God has overseen the very detail and stuff of our lives, he far from being disinterested in people for  ‘…..he determines the times set for them and the exact places where they should live’ (Acts 17v26).

It was John Stott who outlined that ‘…we have intrinsic value because God created us in his own image’[1]. He highlighted that a clear understanding of a doctrine of God and of humanity is requisite in order for right thinking and right practice on such matters. Following on from this Stott infers that ‘…the decision to terminate a human life involves an implicit judgement that a particular form of human living is not worthy of ultimate respect’.[2] Furthermore, ethicists such as Stanley Hauerwas have explained that the Christian tradition considers our life to be a gift from God; it is not within our wit to determine its limits.  ‘For the Christian the reasons for living begin with the understanding that life is a gift’[3]

This is why this debate delineates a Christian sense of life as a gift from a liberal assertion that human beings are autonomous and thus can limit their own lives. There is no middle ground on this point; it constitutes a clash of worldviews.

Protection of the vulnerable: solidarity and social justice

Alteration of the law on Assisted Dying would have had a detrimental impact on the most poor and vulnerable in society.  Proposing that individuals have a ‘right to die’ runs counter to a communitarian perspective: that we are relational creatures bound to each other.

A change in law not only would have placed health professionals in an invidious position, it might have also rendered the vulnerable more prone to being always at the wrong end of a decision to end their life. They could have been at the mercy of pushy professionals and wealthy lobbies who see the poor and ill as a burden; a commodity to devalue and reject. This may sound a stark prognosis, but I submit to you that a change in law would have altered the rules against the poor and towards the powerful, some of whom couched their argument in the language of rights and compassion.

This is why this is not an abstract pro-life issue; it is a social justice issue. For the sake of the common good, we must protect the vulnerable many from the vain projects of the few but powerful rich. To see this in terms of equality and choice is erroneous. It is a matter of justice for the poor and upholding the common good.

The worldview behind the bill needed to be challenged

The Assisted Dying Bill and the arguments it reflected are instructive to some of the most important value debates operative in UK public policy. An argument to end life rooted in a ‘right to die’ plays to the spirit of the age. The modern era appears to elevate the primacy of choice to a seemingly unassailable level. Both state and market collude in reducing human life to a commodity. Bills such as the Assisted Dying Bill reveal the extent to which the central state can be authoritarian and use its power to redefine life itself. So it was not really a liberal proposal!

The pre-suppositions which shaped this proposed legislation were straight from the enlightenment play book, seeing man’s autonomy as sovereign. Such a view is utterly at odds with a Christian worldview, which depicts human life as dependent on a creator God. We cannot overstate the significance of the implications of this philosophy. In a powerful letter to the Daily Telegraph six years ago, John Milbank inferred that privileging human freedom of choice over and above the value of human life is an extra-ordinary move.  To reject the preservation of human life is a significant backward step for humanity:

‘To reject this perspective is to abandon the entire basis of Western humanism over thousands of years. It is to replace the noble ideal of humanity with the bizarre ideal of a consuming and self-consuming animal.’[4]

Indeed, the influence of consumerism mediated through the language of choice appears critical to the worldview of the advocates of assisted dying. The option of euthanasia has essentially been proposed within the context of a society which is seemingly shaped more by shopping than serious ethical reflection. The language and sophisticated lobbying of the pro-euthanasia camp cleverly appeals to the zeitgeist of our era as if we were the ‘masters of our destiny’ and ‘the masters of our fate’. However, the Bible does not grant us the space to subscribe to such a view of ultimate human autonomy.

 

Summary

Our God is a giver of life, He is close to those who are suffering and has himself suffered in Christ. Christians must therefore challenge the worldview which fostered this recent attempt to change the law on assisted dying. Certainly, we should not condemn those who supported a change in legislation through genuine desperation and sincere compassion. Yet, looking ahead we must resolutely continue to oppose any moves to bring in a law on Assisted Dying; such a proposition reflects a view of a society that has given up on God, the common life and ordinary people. It is not a matter of equality and choice; rather it throws a light on some of the most meaningful questions we can ask as a society: What is the value of a human life? How do we build a good society around a notion of a common life?

 

 

 

[1] P411, ‘Issues Facing Christians Today’, John Stott

[2] P390, ‘Issues Facing Christians Today’, John Stott

[3] P585, ‘Memory, community and the reason for living – reflections on suicide and euthanasia’ in ‘The Hauerwas Reader’

[4] Letter to the Daily Telegraph, 6 August 2009: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/letters/5978848/Assisted-suicide-denies-the-value-of-life-and-is-an-affront-to-Western-humanism.html

 


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