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27 August 2015

Why the assisted dying bill ends human dignity, not suffering

Physician-assisted suicide has been a weighty ethical issue since the birth of western medicine. As Christians, it can be challenging to effectively convey the Christian narrative of protecting and cherishing life in a largely consumer-driven society that increasingly values a distorted concept of choice and control, which risks threatening our most vulnerable and diminishing the value of human life.

With the introduction of Labour MP Rob Marris’ Assisted Dying (No. 2) Bill, the UK is once again faced with a debate on assisted suicide. Mr Marris’ bill, which will be debated in the Commons on 11 September, proposes to allow physician-assisted suicide for terminal patients who are thought to have six months or less to live.

Supporters of assisted suicide believe it provides a compassionate solution to unbearable suffering. However, our current law and medical provisions already ensure that individuals don’t suffer unnecessarily.

Palliative care when provided properly alleviates the pain and distressing symptoms experienced by the dying, while neither hastening nor postponing death. The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, said that opposing assisted suicide promotes anguish and pain. Not only is this wildly inaccurate, but it is far and away from the core Christian principle that life is a sacred gift from God that should be valued, protected and preserved.

Our society’s rhetoric is increasingly dominated with concepts such as individual autonomy, choice and consumerism. This has permeated the conversation around assisted suicide and arguments in favour have moved beyond unbearable suffering to include the increasing demand for choice and control over the time and manner of our death.

A primary concern is that it would, over time, place pressure on our most vulnerable to end their life. Shortly after Mr Marris announced his plans, Prime Minister David Cameron confirmed he does not support assisted suicide because of the pressure it would put on frail and elderly people. 

Disability groups across the UK believe assisted suicide would threaten those with disabilities. Assisted suicide, whether intended or not, divides people into two groups. Those deemed to have lives worth living and those who do not. Supporters claim assisted suicide only applies to dying people. However, experience in other jurisdictions shows this is not the case. 

Euthanasia was legalised in Belgium in 2003 and the medical establishment has swung behind the view that it can be used to relieve psychological as well as physical suffering. The parameters have steadily widened to include children and people with no terminal or even physical illness. In 2012 deaf twins Marc and Eddy Verbessem, aged 45, were granted their wish to die after they learned they might become blind. That same year Godelieva De Troyer, 64, was euthanised for depression. In 2013 44-year old transsexual Nancy Verhelst was killed by euthanasia after doctors botched her sex

A recent study published in the Journal of Medical Ethics suggested a third of Dutch doctors would assist a patient’s suicide in cases of mental illness or dementia, and a fifth would where there was a ‘tiredness of life’, but no physical condition.

Disability rights campaigner Nikki Kenward said that once a country legalised assisted suicide or euthanasia, people were inevitably killed in greater numbers than envisaged. Whether we like it or not, law greatly influences the beliefs of a society.

There is significant opposition to legalising assisted suicide beyond disability groups and faith groups. The vast majority of UK doctors oppose legalising euthanasia, along with the British Medical Association, the Royal College of Physicians, the Royal College of General Practitioners, the Association for Palliative Medicine and the British Geriatric Society. Wales, Scotland and the Isle of Man have all rejected attempts to
legalise assisted suicide. The House of Lords also rejected attempts in 2006 and 2009.

In opposing this bill we are not seeking to trivialise or ignore the pain and suffering many people endure. At the heart of Christian faith is the belief that life is a sacred gift from God; it is not ours to decide when it should end. We are stewards, not the owners of the life God has entrusted to us. So we have a responsibility to promote a culture of life rather than one of hopelessness for people in the midst of very difficult circumstances.

Those supporting assisted suicide talk about the right to choose. And they are correct. We do have a choice. We can choose to support a society that as Tim Stanley pertinently describes, “quietly, subtly, maybe subconsciously encourages others to remove their burden of existence from the shoulders of other people”.

Or we can choose to support a society that upholds the inherent dignity and value of every individual. A society that protects our most vulnerable, especially the terminally ill, the disabled and the elderly. A society that as the Bishop of Plymouth says, “cherishes life in all its vulnerability”.

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