Now available in Polish at Racjonalista.
Thanks to Veronica Abbass we have the delight of reading a bunch of tripe from some so-called “religion experts” giving us their take on what the “renewed debate” tells us about the sanctity of life. According to Helga Kuhse, the Australian bioethicist, the Sanctity of Life Principle can be expressed as follows:
It is absolutely prohibited either intentionally to kill a patient or intentionally to let a patient die, and to base decisions relating to the prolongation or shortening of human life on considerations of its quality of kind. [The Sanctity of Life Doctrine in Medicine, 11; italics in original]
Now, the Ottawa Citizen (here) thinks that asking a group of “religion experts” how the debate over assisted dying is affecting our conception of the sanctity of life would be a useful exercise. In general, of course, you might as well just ask the pope, because so-called “religion experts” are not likely to stray very far from the usual religious line that life is sacred. Indeed, while not all of the Ottawa Citizen’s “religion experts” are actually religious experts at all, in general all of them are reluctant to stray away from things they take to be revealed. Almost all of them return a firm non placet so far as assisted dying is concerned. We are not surprised. (It is perhaps worth adding, parenthetically, that the contributors are not really “religion experts” at all, a form of words which suggests expertise in the study of religion. One of the contributors (Kevin Smith) does not seem to have any religious affiliation at all. The rest are supposedly “religious experts”, that is, religious believers whose religious faith gives them moral prejudices of one kind or another based on supposed revelations or authoritative religious texts.)
What is more surprising, perhaps, is that the Ottawa Citizen should end its article with the words of a Roman Catholic priest:
We can do better as a society than killing those who suffer but that requires that we begin with the awareness that all human life is sacred.
At least I think these words come from the priest contributor. Whether these are the words of the last person on the Citizen panel is not altogether clear, but since the Citizen deemed it appropriate to ask only one apparently nonreligious person to comment, there seems to be an underlying assumption that religious people are in some sense moral experts, whose views not only need to be heard and respected, but are the principal sources of our moral understanding. As such this doubtless expresses the editorial position of the newspaper itself. The Citizen has a long history of printing Margaret Somerville’s obiter dicta on the subject of assisted dying (and other ethical issues, but especially those emphasised by the Roman Catholic Church) from time to time. I assume these views are concordant with its own editorial position on the matters in question. But to suppose, as the Citizen apparently does, that “religion experts” have anything pertinent to say on the matter is simply to accord to religious leaders an expertise that they do not possess. Religions think they have insight into the minds of their gods, but there is no reason to think either that what supposed gods think on moral issues should concern us, or that we should pay any attention to those who think that they know what their gods think. It’s time to rid ourselves of the uncritical respect paid to religions and their leaders.
So, when the Muslim in the mix, Abdul Rashid, tells us that
[l]ife is a trust from Almighty God and its sanctity is paramount. We are to guard it, nourish it and live it according to His moral guidelines. Accordingly, Islam does not allow a person to take his or someone else’s life. It forbids suicide and euthanasia. And the Holy Koran equates the wilful murder of an individual to the murder of the entire society and the saving of one life to the saving of the entire humanity (5:35),
what are we supposed to do? Heave a sigh of relief that now we know what is espected of us — because, well, you know, life is a trust from Almighty God and assisted dying is accordingly forbidden? Or would it be better just to say that this is the unsubstantiated opinion of a religious believer, and leave it at that? Since there is no compelling evidence whatever either that there is a god or that life is a gift from this unknown and unknowable entity, this is just empty verbiage, and may be treated as such. The Qu’ran can say what it wants; it has nothing to do with us — unless, of course, we choose to submit ourselves to it. Indeed, there is so much rebarbative and absolutely repulsive gloating in the Qu’ran over the sufferings of those in hell, that the suggestion that killing one individual is to murder an entire society, really doesn’t register on any human scale. How can you go from the detailed torments of those condemned to hell, and then speak with any relevance to the evil of murdering an individual? If Almighty God is able with impunity to cause an infinity of exquisite suffering, anything else from this supposed source is so morally tainted as to be irrelevant to human concerns, which is no doubt why too many Muslims (however small a minority) think it is perfectly alright to go out and kill themselves and others in the name of their god.
The Anglican in the mix, Kevin Flynn, “Anglican priest and director of the Anglican studies program at Saint Paul University,” (for which his students have my sympathy) says, rather vacuously, that “[i]f life is sacred, then presumably it is just as sacred in modern times as at any other time.” The real trouble is that he thinks that we simply no longer have a consensus on what ‘sanctity’ means, but still believes this should govern our attitude towards assisted dying:
Requests for doctor-assisted suicide appear to be signs of the failure of human community. It is difficult, if not impossible, to regard life as sacred if we have no assurance that we will be supported in all circumstances.
However, this assumes a consensus, something that Flynn denies. And the truth is that he doesn’t even seem to see that religious conceptions of sanctity are no longer applicable to secular situations. Laws in secular societies cannot be drafted with religious priorities in view. As I have said before, and will no doubt say again, if religious people want to hold life to be sacred in the particular ways that they do, then they are as free to die in as much agony as their religious convictions require; however, they have no right to impose sufferings on those who do not share either their religious beliefs or their religious sense of life’s “sanctity”.
Kevin Flynn adds two notable things to his short contribution to the Ottawa Citizen’s attempt to mangle the ongoing debate about assisted dying in this country (or at least in Ottawa and surrounding area). One I have already quoted above, where he gives us the straight Anglican Church of Canada party line on assisted dying, that “[r]equests for doctor-assisted suicide appear to be signs of the failure of human community.” Quite to the contrary, however, physician assisted dying is evidence of intimate community, where the best judgements of individuals about the future value of remaining alive are respected, and people are not forced to die in ways not of their own choosing. There is absolutely no reason, despite Eric Beresford (one-time consultant on ethics to the Anglican Church of Canada, as well as to the Anglican Communion, and now President of the Atlantic School of Theology), why helping someone to die in a way and at a time chosen by the individual themselves, should be considered a failure of community — in short, an act of abandonment. To abandon a person to the vagaries of their disease, and all the pain and humiliation entailed by this, when they have themselves made a choice about how they should die: that is real abandonment, despite the euphemisms dreamed up by religious dogmatists. The religious cannot let go ancient prescriptions or proscriptions, lest their whole cover be blown, and it be seen, at last, that religious people have no special insight into moral questions upon which they daily pontificate.
The other thing that Kevin Flynn says is almost a direct quotation from the Archbishop of Canterbury’s speech to the House of Lords, when he spoke, in May 2006, against Lord Joffe’s Assisted Dying for the Terminally Ill bill:
Anglicans have been consistent in resisting doctor-assisted suicide for many reasons. At root, that opposition comes from the belief that there is no stage of life, no aspect of experience, which is intrinsically incapable of being lived through with some kind of trust and hope in God.
The archbishop did not add the words ‘in God’, though only this could really complete the archbishop’s thought. But this is simply a religious supposition. There is no evidence for it, nor is there proof that those who choose to die have given up whatever hope counts with them. Indeed, is there any reason why a Christian should not die in hope, even though they are helped to die? Why is dying in natural misery more according to God’s will than dying in ways chosen by the individual? To my knowledge there is no substantive reason for supposing that the Christian god absolute forbids assistance in dying; nor, in the absence of a completely arbitrary decision (such as papal infallibility), is there any way to decide whose opinion is right. How could there be a decisive answer? After all, their are gods and lords many, and no way to choose from amongst them, except on the circular basis that they all confirm their own truth. Religious moral expertise is shown thus to be a mere prejudice, based on centuries of ignorance. Why should we attend to what religious believers say? Why should the Ottawa Citizen think that consulting religious “experts” is a useful thing to do?
The sludgy obscurity of religious morality gives way to simple clarity with the only nonreligious contributor to the Ottawa Citizen piece. Kevin Smith (not Simth, I warrant — a Freudian slip?) has this to say:
Regardless of our religious beliefs, the majority of us hold that life is precious. In our modern society, the quality of our life has replaced this notion of sanctity. While medical technology can keep us alive, it often provides us with a dismal and intolerable quality to what was a life well lived. Quality is something that only we as individuals can determine and judge for ourselves subjectively. Our right to life includes the right to end it at the time of our choosing, with dignity.
Why is this moment of sanity buried amidst the slime and sludge of empty religious dogmatising, I wonder? Could it be that it makes sense, so it is best hidden, so that the limelight will fall on the religious? A biased editorial decision?
The position of Rabbi Reuven Bulka seems to face up to the facts, and vacillates just enough to make us think that, after all, he might be on the wavelength of reason. He recognises that those who favour assisted dying value life, and that assisted dying is not some kind of grand statement about the absurdity or the valuelessness of life. That’s a start. He also recognises that opposition to assisted dying is not necessarily a majority decision. Yet he seems, notwithstanding, to think that it would be reasonable to come to a decision in which assisted dying remained illegal. Indeed, he ends, unequivocally, on this note:
Those who see life as a gift from God granted to us, to nurture as trustees, will be strongly opposed to eliminating that life. It would violate a sacred trust, far beyond our mandate. Even more crucial is the notion that our embrace of life should by definition be unconditional, at all times and in all circumstances, including when life presents us with unbearable pain.
But we cannot walk away without dealing with that pain, both on an individual and a national level. DAS [Doctor assisted suicide] may not be the answer, but everyone, no matter what side, must seek an acceptable answer.
So, while recognising that advocates of assisted dying are not raving lunatics, as is so often suggested by people like the pope and Alex Schadenberg, he comes down firmly on the side of the unconditional value of life, no matter how unbearable the pain. We can’t walk away, he says, without dealing with that pain, and we must find an acceptable answer, but his waffle shows clearly which side he stands on, and it has nothing to do with recognising the right of people to choose how they will die. That is determined by your disease, and that, as we all know, is a lottery, and the coercion amounts to slavery.
An interesting change of pace is offered by Rev. Ray Innen Parchelo, a Buddhist cleric. Buddhism does not condemn either suicide or assisted dying absolutely. Parchelo begins by acknowledging the change that has taken place in putting patients and their wishes at the centre of medical decision-making, something that no other contributor to the Ottawa Citizen piece (except, of course, Kevin Smith, lost amongst the dross) acknowledges. As he says:
From the Health Ministry down, the patient’s rights and responsibilities are being acknowledged. The default is shifting to a conversation between the patient and the practitioner, a shared-care model. This is proving a challenge for both sides.
He develops this shift in some detail, showing how the role of society, religion and family, while still having weight, are not determinants of individual decisions about the future value of life in cases of pain and debility. And so far as sanctity goes, individuals now determine how they will value their lives. No one else gets to make this particular choice for them. And then Parchelo goes on to say:
In terms of end-of-life decision-making, I would suggest this actually sidesteps the more important issue. We may be granting greater control over the decision to the individual, but I question whether our society is sufficiently concerned with providing ethical standards and guidance that can help individuals make such decisions.
I wouldn’t put it in quite this way. What I would stress is that, in any context in which assisted dying becomes legal, the way that people think about dying will undergo significant change. The change is already afoot, of course, since the movement towards recognition of the right to die is already quite strong in many places, and some organisations, like Canada’s Dying with Dignity, already provide a context in which people can address the ethical issues that are involved at the end of life. However, this kind of ethical discussion will not become widespread until the law recognises people’s rights to make this kind of decision at the end of life. The Buddhist response is at least encouraging. However, Parchelo thinks that since morality, and helping people make moral decisions, is the historic role of religion, it is religion that should help people develop the moral capacities necessary in order to deal reasonably with end-of-life decisions. My belief is that this is not likely to happen, because religions are nearly unanimous on this issue, and are likely to remain so. Parchelo is an exception, no doubt because Buddhism is as much a philosophy of life as a religion; and this makes his point about religious expertise moot. It is clear, I believe, that morality must be moved away from the religions; we have to stop thinking of religions as having any particular insight into moral decision-making, regardless of tradition, and develop new ways of educating people morally, and for determining the moral direction of society. The impossibility of resolving the deadlock between religious morality and morality based on rational principles suggests that the only way forward is to sideline religion as moral teacher, and resort to secular reason as the source of moral expertise.
Predictably, the Roman Catholic contribution, by a priest of the archdiocese of Ottawa, Geoffrey Kerslake, is the least helpful of them all. It is dogmatic from start to finish, from the slander that life today is being treated as a commodity, to the claim that people now think that “physical suffering is the worst thing that can befall a human being and that death is preferable to experiencing it.” This is all the usual Roman Catholic patter, which accuses everyone, except themselves, of moral vulgarity if not moral blindness. And then he offers his own potted experience as a touchstone:
In my experience as a priest who has been with many people who have suffered from painful, debilitating, terminal illnesses, the principal concern wasn’t pain management or alleviating physical symptoms but the mental, social and spiritual aspects at the end of life. People who had adequate medical care, the support of family, a loving community of friends and an opportunity to engage their faith, had a good passing from this life. They did not ask to end their days prematurely or demand a terminal solution to their suffering.
It doesn’t get much more offensive than that, because anyone who has spent time at the bedsides of those dying in terrible distress and pain, surrounded by family and friends, and with the support of the church, cannot in good conscience — unless it was understood, from the start, that it would do no good to ask for help to die, or to express distress at being made to die in such a miserable way — suggest that a patient’s desire to end their days prematurely, or to bemoan the fact that they are forced to suffer so much, is never raised. I have sat by the besides of many people, and with the exception of a very small number, most of those by whose bedsides I have kept vigil did not die with any semblance of peacefulness or dignity. Some are abandoned by family, because family members simply cannot bear to remember their loved ones in such distress and agony. Kerslake is hewing to the party line, but he is also being less than careful with the truth.
Kerslake ends by saying — and this, significantly, is how the article ends:
We can do better as a society than killing those who suffer but that requires that we begin with the awareness that all human life is sacred.
Not true. This is religious propaganda in its purest form. Kerslake knows that, if assisted dying is legalised, many Roman Catholics will opt for it, just as many Roman Catholic women, despite the Vatican’s prohibition, resort to abortion when a woman’s life is in danger, or when it seems preferable not to have another or a defective child. The supposed sacredness of human life is a religious principle, and it cannot be supposed to govern how people in a secular democracy live their lives, nor how they must die. It is offensive that Catholics like Kerslake think it appropriate that their religious prejudices should govern how everyone’s life and death must go. I find this kind of presumption so sickening, that I have very little to add to that.
Roman Catholicism is the main enemy here. It believes that its moral law should be instantiated in civil law and that everyone should be bound by it. The sooner we get rid of the absurd idea that religions have any pertinent expertise regarding morality, the better. The Ottawa Citizen would have served its readership better by asking real experts about such things, instead of seeking expertise from those who, in general, tend to ride moral hobby horses which they cannot control. If we are to have a real debate in this country about assisted dying, then we need to cancel through by people’s religious convictions, otherwise we will still go round and round religious mulberry bushes without any resolution. Religions have no particular expertise in moral thinking. Indeed, if the examples provided by the Ottawa Citizen are anything to go by, religious moral ”experts” clearly suffer from synaptic sclerosis. It is, however, I might add in conclusion, an advance that Kerslake does not hide the religious basis for his opposition to assisted dying. Roman Catholics, as well as Anglicans and other religious, often try to hide behind apparently secular arguments, when all along the moving force of their arguments is religious. At least one thumb up for Kerslake’s honesty in this respect.