Peter Stanford is a former editor of the Catholic Herald in the UK. Most of those who have held this post, such as Christine Odone, have been admanantly opposed to assistance in dying. Even the suggestion that assisted dying should be given a second look would have caused most of them to go apoplectic with repressed anger and outrage. Christine Odone has even written a report for the Centre for Policy Studies, entitled Assisted Suicide: How the chattering classes have got it wrong (downloadable as a pdf here) which uses every single bad argument in the Roman Catholic playbook, not even shrinking from using half-truths and outright lies to make her point — being a member of the chattering classes it should not be surprising (given the premise of her title) that she got things wrong as well.
Nevertheless — and now we get to the real meat of this post — Peter Stanford has experienced an awakening of conscience. In today’s Telegraph, refusing to parrot the empty certainties of popes and their acolytes, he tells of his day with Tony Nicklinson, and how he came away with the conviction that the last word has not, after all, been said in the matter of assisted dying. His article, “How an extraordinary day spent with Tony Nicklinson changed my views on right-to-die.”
In the course of this article Peter Stanford says some important things. The most important thing that he could have said, perhaps, is that he had changed his mind. A day spent with a severely disabled man whose suffering was so great forced Stanford to recognise that he could not simply parrot the old lie that people who are asking to die are asking for others to hope for them. He had to recognise Tony Nicklinson as a human being who could make choices, who had carefully thought through the alternatives facing him, and had decided that he wanted help to die.
One of the things that they discussed, via Tony’s wife Jane, who interpreted for him, was the part that religion played in Tony’s predicament:
Tony felt that religious scruples were the only thing that prevented him from being allowed to die, a legacy of Christian morality that lives on in our laws. I felt I had to admit to being a churchgoer and defend the sanctity of life argument.
And here, in Stanford’s words, is the crucial step in the conversation that he had with Tony Nicklinson:
On this one point, it emerged, he was crystal clear. He was an atheist. His family were atheists. He did not believe that God gave life and took it away. “This is a secular issue,” he spelt out. Why should he therefore be bound by laws based on those beliefs?
Stanford’s response is telling:
I didn’t have an answer then. Or now, when I have had plenty of time to assemble one.
Of course, he recognises that there is plenty to say, but it does not, Stanford says, amount to very much:
There is plenty that can be, and is, said in response, not least by our church leaders, or indeed the gospels. But once I had been there with Tony Nicklinson, seen the depth of his suffering, the seriousness of his intent, the extent to which he had explored every other avenue, and then carried his family along with him in what was undeniably his choice and his alone, all that rang pretty hollow. [my italics]
I doubt the part about the gospels. They have nothing whatever to say about whether or not a person should be permitted to take their dying into their own hands, and so far as I know, there is nothing in the gospels that can be readily interpreted in that light. Indeed, since the emphasis in the gospels as well as in Paul is clearly placed on the life to come — indeed, it is not quite clear whether or not Paul himself had contemplated suicide in order to go and be with Christ, which, he said, would be far better (than going on) — there is arguably a Christian case that could be made, not only for compassion for people who are suffering as Tony Nicklinson suffered, but for their right to die when their suffering has become too great to bear. (Paul Badham, an Anglican priest, makes such a case in his book Is there a Christian Case for Assisted Dying?) But the point here is that Peter Stanford came to recognise, contrary to the declaration of his church on euthanasia, that a decision to end one’s life is not necessarily unreasonable. This was a big step for him to take.
He also took another big step. It is often said, he points out, that hard cases made bad laws. But what Peter Stanford came to see is that it can also be said that good cases can make bad laws. Just because one person is content to live with locked-in syndrome, and finds life worth living, is no reason to impose that decision on another person who does not think that life in that condition is worth living. To do so, says Stanford, would be to hold him hostage to the decisions of other people. Suppose, as a letter writer to the Times says this morning, “Why I choose life over euthanasia,” that the law had been changed by Tony Nicklinson’s appeal to the High Court. Would this not, the Rev’d Michael Hore wonders, make it more likely that, despite the fact that he positively relishes his life (even though he suffers severely from motor neurone disease), “my life and even those of lesser disability in the eyes of society” would be devalued? Peter Stanford’s response is that assuming this would simply be to hold people like Tony Nicklinson hostage. As he says:
Refusing on the basis of the potential implications for others in similar circumstances felt like holding him hostage.
The point that should be clear is that there is absolutely no reason why the value of Michael Hore’s life, to Michael Hore, should be devalued, just because Tony Nicklinson does not see the continued value of his life, given his particular situation in the world; and it is unfair to hold Tony Nicklinson hostage to Michael Hore’s imagination. For if, in fact, reflecting on Tony Nicklinson’s decision to bring his life to an end were actually to make Michael Hore feel that his life really is intolerable, on further reflection, then his life would be really intolerable, and then he would be in Tony Nicklinson’s case as well, because the law is not changed, and it is not changed at least partly on the basis of fears such as his.
In his letter to me, in response to mine about his speech on assisted dying to the House of Lords, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, said this:
… every debate about these questions is bound to involve specific stories of such terrible circumstances [as those suffered by my wife Elizabeth] — and also powerful testimonies from those who consider that their own security and quality of life would be threatened by legislative change. … Those who vote have to balance the possibilities of acute suffering against what many see as a perfectly real and concrete risk to the vulnerable.
You will have noticed at once the rhetorical use of “possibilities of acute suffering” (where I had spoken to him of my wife Elizabeth’s view of her ongoing suffering as intolerable, which Williams then minimises by speaking of specific stories of such terrible circumstances), balanced against “a perfectly real and concrete risk to the vulnerable,” when the truth is almost certainly exactly the reverse. That is, there are perfectly real and concrete examples of acute suffering, and a possibility of risk to the vulnerable — a risk that, in fact, has been shown not to be a risk in places where assisted dying has been legalised. That imbalance in the language is a deliberate tactic to downplay people’s suffering in favour of a merely imagined risk, a risk which, if we are truly concerned about it, can in any event be minimised by the terms written into any law that would govern assisted dying. The risk, however, is very small, but the certainty of great suffering is very real and is repeated daily. The suffering are being held hostage to imaginary risks like those of Rowan Williams and Michael Hore. It is significant that Peter Stanford can recognise this.
Nor should we ignore the significance of Peter Stanford’s enlightened ability to change his mind based on the facts, and on a reasoned assessment of his church’s position on this matter. The church is wrong. A perfectly reasonable case can be made for assistance in dying. It is wrong to hold the suffering hostage by claiming risk to other people. Why should Tony Nicklinson be held hostage to the possibility that some unnamed others might be put at risk? Michael Hore, in his letter to the Times, says that he chooses life over euthanasia. Well, bully for him. He has that right, and no one should deny it him. But Tony Nicklinson chose death over continuing to live in misery, and no one should have denied him the right to receive help to put his decision into effect. In the end, it comes down to a question of choice, and how that choice is interpreted in different life situations.
Michael Hore, being a priest, will know the term, Sitz im Leben, used by biblical scholars to provide the social and historical context of the words of scripture. Each person has their own Sitz im Leben, their own situation in life, and each person should be permitted to live out that situation according to their own conception of what makes for a good life. No one should be forced, against their will, to live through conditions that they find deeply antagonistic to their own conception of what would make their life go well. Such compulsion is deeply inimical to the contemporary ideal of what constitutes our dignity as human beings. It is to Peter Stanford’s great credit that he recognises this, that a person’s dignity does not depend merely upon their biological life alone, but upon their own deep assessment as to how their own sense of the meaning and purpose in life can be most satisfactorily fulfilled. That this must include their dying, too, as a significant part of life about which we should be able freely to choose, is something that too few religious believers seem willing to grant. I am greatly encouraged by Peter Stanford’s change of heart.