Foolishness to Greeks: Article on the Assisted Dying Bill

On 11 September a Private Members Bill will be debated in the House of Commons. This Bill, an attempt to legalise a means of assisted dying is of immense significance. Through the heart of this debate run themes which are shaping public policy in our nation; attempting to normalise pre-suppositions that do not accord with a Christian worldview.

We should approach this debate with prayer, humility and compassion for those who suffer to the point of wanting to end their life. However, we should not be naive about what this represents. It is 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. We should absolutely empathise with those who may support this bill having seen loved ones suffer, but for the reasons I lay out, I would submit that this bill should be opposed and the arguments that inspire it should be contested and resisted.

The ethical and intelligible concerns against these proposals have been articulated by charities such as CARE, the Evangelical Alliance and Care not Killing. A few of the numerous practical reasons to query the bill are as follows.

  • Most members of the medical and health professions are strongly opposed to the Bill
  • A good alternative exists. The UK takes a global lead in palliative and hospice care
  • All the main disability lobby groups[1] oppose a change to the law

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, we cannot avoid this debate, it is central and not marginal to what we believe and hold dear.

There are a number of reasons to propose a vision of life which precludes going down this unwelcome road. They are; biblical reasons, the need to protect the vulnerable and uphold the common good, a need to challenge secular liberalism and the fact that changes to the law in other nations have not resulted in a good outcome.

1)      Biblical and Theological objections

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

We see in Acts 17vv16-34 Paul testifying that there is a God, Jesus the God-Man rose from the dead. 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 is not disinterested in us, 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’[2]. 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’[3]

We see then that a biblical worldview has a life-affirming basis. 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’[4]

This is a profound point and 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. Hauerwas further reflects that: ‘We are not our own creators. Our desire to live should be given shape in the affirmation that we are not the determiners of our life, God is. We Christians are people who must learn to live, as we have learned that life is a gift’[5]

2) Protection of the vulnerable: solidarity and social justice

A second reason to oppose this Bill should be second nature to Christians on the centre-left.  Altering the law on Assisted Dying would have a detrimental impact on the most poor and vulnerable in society. If we hold to at least a communitarian perspective that we are relational creatures bound to each other, we must query why some on the Labour side, no doubt with all sincerity and genuine compassion, have supported such measures.

A change in law not only places health professionals in an invidious position,  it also renders the vulnerable more prone to being always at the wrong end of a decision to end their life. They will be 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 alters the rules against the poor and towards the powerful, some of whom are couching 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. Giles Fraser, neatly summed up this danger:

'This is the shadow side of liberal freedom. It’s a young and healthy person’s ideology, suited for the well-off. It amounts to the renunciation of our obligations to each other and to the vulnerable'

He further explains that this is the logic of the market-place.

'.....by eroding the long-term mutual obligations we have to each other, in sickness and in health, we have arrived at the existential equivalent of a zero-hours contract with life, a contract that can be terminated at will.'[6]

This concern then has a class component. In a world ever more conforming to the morality of the dystopian fantasy; ‘The Hunger Games’, the working-class and poor, too often mocked, pilloried and abused by the liberal elite who really run this country will be ever more vulnerable to the wishes of the powerful. 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 Assisted Dying Bill must be resisted and this makes it a Labour cause, our call is to organise the powerless vis-à-vis the self-interest of the powerful.

3)  The worldview behind the bill needs to be challenged

The Assisted Dying Bill and the arguments it reflects 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 this one reveal the extent to which the central state can be authoritarian and use its power to redefine life itself. So it is not really a liberal proposal!

The pre-suppositions which shaped this legislation are straight from the enlightenment play book, seeing man’s autonomy as sovereign. This is utterly at odds with a Christian worldview, as articulated thoughtfully by Hauerwas 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.’[7]

Indeed, the influence of consumerism mediated through the language of choice appears critical to the worldview of the advocates of assisted dying. Euthanasia is essentially being 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 will be clever and appealing 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.

John Stott makes it clear that:

Human freedom is not unlimited. We find our freedom only in living according to our God-given nature, not in rebellion against it. The notion of total human autonomy is a myth’[8]

Paul reminds us we are to ‘..demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God…’ 2 Corinthians 10v 5 (NIV).

The right to die is not just an opinion amongst many, it is a pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God.

4) International data is instructive

Finally, a persuasive reason to oppose this bill is informed by the evidence from other states that have followed a comparable path.  It has been observed where a liberalisation of the law has been pursued disturbing outcomes have been witnessed. For example in the state of Oregon in the US[9], patients have been refused life-saving drugs and offered suicide instead. Patients with a history of serious depression have been offered lethal drugs. In Belgium and the Netherlands changes in the law have been followed by further calls for the law to go further. The call for further liberalisation would not end if the law was amended.

Summary

Our God is a giver of life, he is close to those who are suffering and has himself suffered in Christ.  As we pray and reflect on this central truths we can see the Assisted Dying Bill in a full, biblical light. Hard cases make bad law and the Private Members Bill on Assisted Dying would open the door to bad law and bad practises.

Christians must strongly oppose this Bill, the worldview which fosters it and its unintended consequences for the vulnerable and powerless in our society. Certainly, we should not condemn those who support it through genuine desperation and compassion. We should resolutely 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?

It is therefore not surprising, but indeed a correlative of liberal political theory, that one should have the ‘right’ to commit suicide. We must ask ourselves whether in accepting that right we have unwittingly affirmed a society that no longer wishes to provide the conditions for the miracle of trust and community.’[10]



[1] Disability Rights UK, Scope, the UK Disabled People’s Council and Not Dead Yet

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

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

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

[5] Ibid

[8] P414, ‘Issues Facing Christians Today’, John Stott

[9] ‘Don’t make Oregon’s mistake’, Care not Killing briefing paper – 4 September 2015 - http://www.carenotkilling.org.uk/public/pdf/cnk-oregon-a4-1(9)-web.pdf

[10] P592, Memory, community and the reason for living – reflections on suicide and euthanasia’ in ‘The Hauerwas Reader’

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