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ss nucleus - summer 2003,  A Right to Die?

A Right to Die?

Jim Paul looks at a shift in society

On 20 January 2003 Reginald Crew became the second Briton to travel to an 'assisted suicide' clinic in Switzerland in order to have his life ended by a fatal dose of barbiturates. The 74 year old former car worker suffered from motor neurone disease, a progressive neurological condition, which left him paralysed from the neck down. He described his life as 'only pain and torture' and that it was 'killing my family to look after me and it is killing me to have to live like this'. In his view, assisted suicide was 'the best gift I could hope for'.[1] Ludwig Minelli, founder of Dignitas, the organisation that provided the means for Mr Crew to end his life, described British law as cruel for continuing to make assisting suicide a crime, thus forcing Mr Crew to travel to Switzerland to have his wish granted.

Attitudes to death

Suicide was decriminalised in Britain in 1961 in order to save desperate and often depressed people from the further stress of a criminal prosecution should they survive the attempt. However it remained an offence to assist suicide, it being our duty as compassionate members of a community to preserve life. Although suicide might be the choice of a mentally ill individual, it was not a choice to be embraced by society at large. Death was to be resisted rather than assisted. Death remained, in the prevailing worldview of the time, a choice that no rational and sane person would choose.

However, society's attitude to death has shifted still further since then. In the view of some moral philosophers and increasing numbers of the general public, to decide for death over life can be the rational choice of a sane individual. In some instances death has come to be seen as a moral good. The profundity of this change cannot be underestimated. Its roots lie in a changed perception of human identity and autonomy.

Human identity

In the Judeo-Christian worldview that dominated Western culture until the time of the Enlightenment in the 18th century, our identity was to be found as individuals created in the image of God.[2] This view bestowed men and women with dignity and value, reflected in a unique reverence for human life.[3] Human autonomy was also seen within the context of this relationship - although we are free to make real decisions,[4] our freedom is to be used to do what is right, rather than what we want.[5] Thus Christian social ethics came to be characterised by living responsibly before God and others, rather than the pursuing of one's own desires to the exclusion of all else.

The Enlightenment philosophers declared God to be either irrelevant to human life or non-existent. The human race was 'free' to define its own identity with reference only to itself. It is no surprise that social ethics gradually moved from focussing on our responsibilities towards others and became increasingly centred on rights that we demand from others. Personal autonomy became the dominant theme of Western ethics while people saw themselves more and more as individuals rather than as members of communities. The only social ethic that could bind fragmented societies together was the principle of autonomy - as long as I give permission then the action is morally right. As one writer has expressed it, a libertarian interpretation of ethics (ie the dominance of autonomy in decision-making) 'is morally unavoidable for peaceable secular pluralist societies'.[6] It is within this worldview that we must see the claims of Reginald Crew and others to the 'right to die'. But how should we as Christians respond?

A Christian response

The answer to this is not easy but we must start by finding bridging points between the worldviews of Christianity and secular materialism. The gap between the two has become so wide that in terms of ethical thinking we have become 'moral strangers',[7] for we no longer possess shared premises from which to tackle ethical controversies together. If we merely quote Bible verses we will never be heard by a dominant culture that regards Scripture as irrelevant.

Perhaps a way in is to ask the question, 'where does compassion and reverence for human life come from?' Secular philosophies struggle to answer this question in a coherent way. It is hard to construct a robust defence of the significance of human life if man is just the product of matter plus time plus chance. And yet, as even secular ethicists admit,[8] all human beings seem to share an intuitive conviction about the sanctity of human life. Even pro-euthanasia lobbyists say that their view is formed out of 'compassion' and a desire for the dignity of the dying person. Where does this sense of dignity and compassion come from? And in what context does it make sense? It is my belief that only God's revelation in his written and living Word can provide sufficient answers to these questions - answers that make sense of ourselves and the world in which we live. It is these questions that we must sensitively but urgently ask and coherently answer, both in private conversations and in the public arena, if we are to win the euthanasia debate.

  1. Metro 2003; 21 January
  2. Gn 1:27
  3. Gn 9:4-6
  4. Gn 1:28, 2:19,20
  5. Gn 2:15-17
  6. Engelhardt T. The four principles of health care ethics and post-modernity, in Gillon R (ed). Principles of Health Care Ethics. Chichester: Wiley Press, 1994:135-147
  7. Ibid
  8. see Dworkin R. Life's Dominion. London: Harper Collins, 1993
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