Are we helping to die or helping to live?

The Archbishop of Armagh has rejected calls to legalize euthanasia

It may be tempting to imagine that the current debate in the Westminster parliament on the vexed question of “assisted dying” (or euthanasia as it used to be known) is a matter that will not transfer to Ireland in the foreseeable future.

This would be unwise in the extreme.

The discussion is already well underway here, at dinner tables if not yet in council rooms. It is crucial that none of us should not be so naïve as to imagine that this is someone else’s debate.

We must therefore be ready to take the arguments on assisted dying seriously, and we should certainly never be quick to propound simple answers that will sound merely heartless in the face of human suffering.

We ought to make sense not simply to ourselves, but to others who do not share our certainties. We need also to understand an important moral distinction between pointless and painful medical intervention on those who are undeniably reaching the end of their lives, and active clinical assistance to end life.

Medical non-intervention in some circumstances simply allows nature to take its merciful course, and it is difficult to argue with moral force against this.

Direct intervention to end life is another matter.

Many of us will indeed have the perspectives of religious faith on questions of life and death, but discussion on assisted dying should not be allowed to degenerate into a faith vs non-faith argument. For the Christian believer, life on earth is a gift of God – a wholly unearned gift from start to finish – and the conclusion of earthly life is not the end of our life with God.

We should however be humble enough to acknowledge that for many humanists (who have no such belief in God) life is nevertheless something mysterious and sacred, and not simply our “possession”.

One of the most perplexing aspects of the intervention of a former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, into the debate in England on the side of assisted dying was that a fundamental Christian tenet – that our life on earth is not our property to do with as we choose – appeared to have eluded him entirely.

Much therefore depends on how we understand the significance of earthly life. If life is simply a personal commodity (and our culture does sadly encourage us to think of everything as a commodity that can be evaluated in terms of its usefulness to us) then life is disposable, entirely at the will of the individual “possessor”. This is clearly not the Christian perspective and, even for the non-believer, it is not an automatic understanding of the significance of life.

Human life, properly understood, is about our relationships, relationship with God and relationship with others on earth.

Individualism – individual rights, individual comfort and individual control – has indeed become the cornerstone of much modern existence, but it is deeply dysfunctional. We belong to God and to one another.

One danger accompanying any movement towards assisted dying is an insidious pressure it would bring to many people, and at the most vulnerable time of their life, when they are about to leave this earth.

There are few people who do not hate the thought of being “a burden” on those they love, and they might indeed believe that asking to die would be an act of generosity to those around.

Given also the costs of care for the terminally ill (which often falls on a family), unselfish people might well believe that they owe it to their families not to waste the money that they had hoped to leave for loved ones, on their continued care.

This is where human relationships, and the certainty of human love and support that accompany those relationships, are so crucial for those who are facing the end of earthly life.

It is therefore particularly sad that the hospice movement, where people are wonderfully encouraged to live life as fully as is practicable to the last, should be virtually starved of public money and should hence have to devote so much energy and effort simply to survive financially.

Above all, let no-one ever take a casual or unfeeling attitude to those who are suffering in terminal illness, over however long or short a period.

Being helpless and utterly dependent on others at the close of an earthly life is a sad burden for all involved.

Within my own life, I do have some experience of this in the death of my own wife from cancer, but this does not permit me to pontificate.

I do however believe that if we can bring ourselves to believe that all life is a gift of God, then the end of an earthly life can truly be more about helping others to live than helping them to die.

The Most Revd Dr Richard Clarke is Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland

First printed in The News Letter

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