Yesterday I took a look at part of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops’ statement on assisted suicide. Note carefully that they persist in the use of the word ‘suicide’ to describe what is taking place when people in unrelievable suffering choose to die, and then they assimilate this to other occasions of suicide, thus mischaracterising as tragic acts of depression or desperation by people in the midst of life, those who act on reasonable grounds towards the end of life to bring their suffering to an end. The continued misrepresentation of what is intended when proponents speak of aid in dying is a deeply cynical aspect of the Roman Catholic campaign to oppose assisted dying. It is fundamentally dishonest, and shows the Roman Catholic Church up for what it is, a bully in the public square, whose only purpose is to ensure that its beliefs, prescriptions and proscriptions are adhered to by everyone, regardless of belief.
The next step in their statement is to accuse those who approve assistance in dying legislation as expressing a false compassion.
True compassion [the bishops say] alleviates suffering while maintaining solidarity with those who suffer. It does not put lethal drugs in their hands and abandon them to their suicidal impulses, or to the self-serving motives of others who may want them dead.
This is a slander, a misrepresentation, and a lie, all in one. Sure, it is possible that there are people who, when people are dying, would wish it to go more swiftly so that they can get ahold of their inheritance. But absolutely no one is suggesting that assistance in dying should be handed over to anyone who can benefit from the death of the person concerned. And, as for solidarity, how much solidarity is there when the person’s own wish to be helped to die is refused and misrepresented, as the late pope did, as a request for others to hope when they are no longer able to hope for themselves? Is this solidarity? No, it is not, it is a cynical manipulation of the truth — the truth that some people do want to die more quickly – in order to affirm and reaffirm its own absolute prescriptions and proscriptions. And how truly compassionate is it to ignore the continuing desperate appeals of the dying to be helped to die? By what verbal magic do the bishops turn this refusal into compassion? The truth is, obviously, that these people are not thinking in terms of compassion at all. They think they know something that others do not know, namely, what God wants, and they are prepared to stick to this false knowledge, which cannot, by any stretch of the imagination be shown to be true, whatever its effect on people who are suffering. This is so deeply cynical as almost to beggar description. How could this group of influential men believe that they are actually expressing the highest and best morality by associating themselves with ideas such as these?
But the cynicism goes even deeper yet. Referring to what they see as a slippery slope in Holland, they say this:
Once [the doctors] convinced themselves that ending a short life can be an act of compassion, it was morbidly logical to conclude that ending a longer life may show even more compassion.
The argument is beneath contempt. The context is this. According to Dutch law, as long as terms of the Groningen Protocol are followed, doctors will not be prosecuted for terminating the lives of seriously compromised neonates. Also, by report, though there is not, to my knowledge any clear indication that this is a common practice, or endorsed by the Dutch authorities, persons with chronic depression, and, in one case, a woman whose pathological grief at losing both her husband and son, was, after much consideration, helped to die. And this is all it takes for the bishops to declare that an unavoidable slippery slope exists, so that they can aver without qualification that compassion in Holland now thinks that the longer the life terminated, the more compassion is shown. If it hadn’t been said, it would be hard to believe that anyone would have had the audacity to say it.
In their conclusion, not surprisingly, the bishops affirm their resolve
to join with … disability rights advocates, charitable organizations, and members of the healing professions, to stand for the dignity of people with serious illnesses and disabilities and promote life-affirming solutions for their problems and hardships.
The inclusion here of the disabled is a red herring. Yes, opponents of assisted dying have encouraged the disabled and those who advocate on their behalf to believe that assisted dying legislation would put their lives in danger. This is nonsense, and it rests on a very simple mistake, a mistake that is made over and over again by those who oppose aid in dying. The mistake is a simple one for those who see moral laws as absolutes. If it is morally right for one person to do something (call it A) in circumstances C, then it is an obligation for anyone in C to do A.
This is well illustrated in the Spanish movie, The Sea Inside, especially in the scene when Ramón Sanpedro, the quadriplegic man who was seeking the right to die with dignity, and who fought for that right for thirty years, confronts the priest. The priest is also quadriplegic, and he had argued on television that giving Ramón the right to die would devalue lives of those, like him, who were also quadriplegic. He added for good measure that the fact that Ramón wanted to die was a reflection on the lack of love and care that his family and caregivers were showing him. This clip shows the confrontation between Ramón and the priest (you may have to go to full screen in order to read the subtitles):
The problem is clear. Ramón wants, as he puts it, to die with dignity (morir con dignidad). Would the fulfilment of this desire, if permitted by law, devalue the lives of everyone who, like Ramón, are quadriplegic, and make it likely that such people would be killed? I think the answer to that question is obviously no, but not to the bishops, who state:
By rescinding legal protection for the lives of one group of people, the government implicitly communicates the message — before anyone signs a form to accept this alleged benefit — that they may be better off dead. Thus the bias of too many able-bodied people against the value of life for someone with an illness or disability is embodied in official policy.
But this is simply nonsense. There is no connexion between my valuing something for myself and others valuing it for themselves, unless of course it has to do with the moral underpinnings of society, when I am making a claim that these values should govern the way all of us ought to act in our relationships with each other. This, of course, is precisely what the bishops are doing. They are making a universal claim, that, since they put an absolute and non-defeasible value on persons, no matter what those persons themselves think about their value, or what they themselves want to do, or how much they are suffering, that everyone else ought to put that value on persons too; so it is, of course, not surprising that they think of advocates of aid in dying as making the same assumption. But they are wrong. The bishops’ prescriptions would bind everyone. But Ramón’s decision to die with dignity binds only himself. Elizabeth, when she went to Switzerland to die, was not saying that everyone with MS, in a condition similar to hers, ought to die or be killed. She was making a choice for herself, and for herself alone, and she did make it. No one else with MS was included in that decision, and there is absolutely no reason why they should consider themselves to be so included. The same thing applies to persons who choose to stop treatment or life support. They are not saying that everyone in their condition must or ought to do so, but that that is right for them. (The parallels between these two cases — assisted dying, and stopping or refusing treatment — are worth considering.)
The underlying premise of assisted dying is personal decision, individual autonomy, and if assisted dying be extended into areas which are more appropriately called euthanasia, where decisions are made for others, it should be based on entirely different principles than those applying to people who can make choices for themselves, whether by way of advanced directives telling their caregivers what they want to happen in different situations, or by way of their own choice at the time that it is made. It is simply scare tactics to suggest, as the bishops do, that there are slippery slopes all around us, and people should be very afraid of being killed against their will.
The bishops themselves do, however, raise serious questions that must be faced by those who are likely to find themselves in the hands of Catholic health institutions, and they should be warned that, in those hands, they may not be accorded the kind of autonomy that they would expect in more secular institutions. If they are happy to put themselves in the hands of institutions which threaten excommunication for anyone who acts in ways that are not strictly according to Catholic moral principles, then all is well, but if not, they should be aware of the danger into which they may be standing. In my view the Catholic moral position is without merit. Any morality that needs to misrepresent its opponents so badly as to amount to lying about them cannot stand. It amounts to ideological shadow boxing. I am quite prepared to say that morality, for me, must be based on secular principles amongst which individual autonomy is, if not primary, at least central. In general, I think, the Roman Catholic Church agrees, but Roman Catholic Morality shades off into absolutism when it comes to areas concerned with matters that they believe, without any evidence, must be left solely to God’s discretion, and to the discretion of his representatives on earth. Here any sane person must issue his urgent non placet!