My last post on this subject did not get the response that I had hoped for. Perhaps you feel, as Paxton did, that the whole thing was irrelevant, because apparently tied so closely to scriptural exegesis. Or perhaps assisted dying is not your thing, and you wish I would get back to hammering the religions. Well, but that is precisely what I am, by indirection, doing. And that is the reason for exploring the meaning of ‘sanctity’ in religious tradition. It seems to me to be vital, if we are to cut the nerve of those things that are preventing the electorate and legislatures from dealing with the problem of assisted dying in a way that is free from religious prejudice and the intrusion of religious concepts in secular discourse, that we fully appreciate the resonance of that word ‘sanctity’ and how it affects our ability to think clearly about assisted dying.
The word itself, as I tried to show in my last post, comes from a uniquely religious context. The sacred is something not only set apart. It is also unapproachable. Churches maintain this unapproachability in ritual ways by placing the sacred in sacred hands. Thus, when a priest is ordained, his hands are anointed with holy oil, and set apart for the handling of holy things. And then those holy things are separated, in a hierarchical way, in churches, so that the ordinary lay person is always at a distance from holy things, which must be approached with solemnity and reverence. These things reinforce in the minds of people what is meant by the sacred.
Let me quote from Michel Onfray’s book, Atheist Manifesto. He is speaking about what he calls “ontological contamination,” and how the practice of medicine is inevitably affected by it:
The current hypersensitivity [he writes] on the subject of bioethics proceeds from this invisible influence. Secular political decisions on this major issue more or less correspond to positions formulated by the church. This should be no surprise, for the ethos of bioethics remains fundamentally Judeo-Christian. 
And the idea of the sacred is uppermost in dictating this outcome. So long as we use this word, and think in terms of the sacredness or sanctity of life, we are bound to the wheel of Christian (and other religious) thought. The kind of absolute reverence which is required by the sacred, which is so evident in the handling of sacred things, continues to work its magic on our thought, even when we are least aware of this. So it is vital to get this into perspective. Even when the churches themselves seem to be talking in secular terms, as I pointed out yesterday, they continue to respect, in a subtext, the prescriptions dictated by the assumption of sanctity. That is why I oppose, and will continue to oppose, the use of the term ‘sanctity-of-life’ in the context of arguing for the right of all people to receive assistance in dying when their lives have become occasions for intolerable suffering that only death can relieve. My references in the last post to the way that the idea of the sacred functions in sacred scripture was not, as Paxton suggests, because I am still tied to scripture, but because I am quite as aware as Onfray is of the continued effect of these texts on our contemporary moral discourse; further progress demands that we get rid of this language. That is precisely why, while I applaud Scott McKenna’s support for assisted dying, I cannot approve the continued use of language which has a tendency to keep us anchored so firmly in the past, when what we need is something entirely new.
I think that the fact that all life on earth is related enforces a change upon our moral language that is hidden if we continue to use sanctity-of-life language. James Rachels puts this quite clearly in his book, Created from Animals: The Moral Implications of Darwinism. Instead of talking about sanctity, Rachels speaks instead of dignity, but, these words are virtually interchangeable in sanctity-of-life ethics, as a brief perusal of Pope Karol Józef Wojtyła’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae should convince you. The point is that human life is assumed to be unique in a way that other life is not, and therefore human life deserves to be given a special place in moral discourse that is not available to other forms of life. Rachels denies this. He thinks that Darwinism undermines the traditional concept of human dignity.
In traditional morality [he writes], the doctrine of human dignity is not an arbitrary principle that hands in logical space with no support. It is grounded in certain (alleged) facts about human nature; those facts are what (allegedly) make it reasonable to believe in the moral doctrine. The claim implicit in traditional morality is that humans are morally special because they are made in the image of God, or because they are uniquely rational beings. 
I personally think that the concept of human dignity can be used in other ways that are morally useful, but I leave that question aside here. Rachels’ point is that Darwinism undermines the religious conception of human dignity, and hence of the sanctity of (human) life. And this is important. When religious moralists talk of the sanctity-of-life, they are not talking about life in general, but of human life. Darwinism undermines this conception by showing that all life is related, and that human life cannot be reasonably assumed to have a special status that distinguishes it absolutely from other forms of life. Pope Karol Józef Wojtyła, in his address to scientists, hedged his bets when speaking about human beings, by suggesting that, at a certain point, there is an ontological leap from animal to human life, by God’s active provision of the human soul. Thus human life is to be distinguished from all other life on the strength of a belief that has no ground in empirical reality. It is simply a stipulation that humans are different from all other forms of life, and this cannot be justified.
Recall, if you will, what I said about sanctity in my last post, to which this one is a sequel. Sanctity derives initially from religious contexts in which things that are holy, or sacred, are set apart from ordinary use, and only approachable, if at all, with solemnity and reverence. In most religions the holy is only approachable with fear, and often only by those who are themselves, in certain respects, holy. Jews speak of the holy as that which “defiles the hands,” meaning thereby that it is untouchable by profane hands. In churches which consider themselves to be Catholic in a sense in which others are not, when priests are ordained their hands are specially anointed and set apart to the purpose of handling holy things. Though things are more relaxed now, there was a time when those who tended the altar, and cleaned the “sacred” vessels used to celebrate the Eucharist, were required to wear coverings for their shoes and gloves, and even to cover their hair, so that they should not profane sacred things by touching them with unblessed hands, or walking in sacred spaces with worldly feet. That may seem a touch bizarre, but such was the reverence for the holy that it was thought appropriate to emphasise the holiness of things by rigorously setting them apart in special ways from the merely worldly and profane (the word ‘profane’ meaning before, and therefore outside the fanum, or temple).
Of course, modern concepts of the holy have tried to erase the distance between the world and the sacred, and to get rid of the hierarchical conception of the human community in which some persons were considered to be more holy than others, but the respect paid to clergy and others who have been “set apart,” either by ritual or recognised holiness, for God’s service, shows clearly that the concept of the sacred is still fairly robust, despite the greater casualness with which holy things are now treated. This obviously plays into the kinds of concerns expressed by Michel Onfray, who holds, I think rightly, that the often invisible influence of Judeo-Christian (and Islamic) presuppositions still plays an important role in our decisions, especially where these concern questions of life and death.
This is why I deprecate the continued use of the idea of the sanctity-of-life, for the “ontological contamination” implied by this idea inevitably slips in and undermines our best efforts to think about life and death issues without religious assumptions. This is evident in the way that the Archbishop of Canterbury’s intervention in the debate over Lord Joffe’s assisted dying bill was a decisive influence in leading the House of Lords to defeat the bill, as Mary Warnock claims in her book Dishonest to God (see 104-107). And, as she says in that book, it is, in her view
difficult to understand how there can be exceptions to the sanctity of human life. If it is truly sacred, then nothing could justify deliberately bringing it to an end, whether by killing oneself or another, whatever the circumstances. 
The language of the sacred, I believe, is brutally clear on this point. If something is sacred, then it is separated from ordinary human considerations. It is holy, and approachable only with reverence and fear. This is simply what the words ‘sacred’, ‘holy’, and ‘sanctity’ imply, and to continue to use them in the context of respect for human life is unfortunately, and almost inevitably, to place human life in a category which is beyond the reach of human moral consideration. That is the whole point of talking about sanctity, and it will, as Onfray points out, continue to contaminate our attempts at moral revision, as long as we continue to use it.
This point is also made by Mary Warnock in the book just cited. She points out that Roman Catholic MPs were directed, in a note from the Vatican, that they must oppose any bill that would “undermine the sanctity of life from conception to natural death,” and goes on to say that this instruction was echoed by the Anglican theologian John Millbank, who argued, in Warnock’s words, that
Democracy is to be defended only insofar as it is founded upon theological doctrine.
Warnock then goes on to say that in her view
such a role for theology is profoundly wrong, and I believe that it is necessary to reinstate secular morality as the basis for introducing new legislation and for the criticism and amending of existing law. 
It seems to me that this should simply be obvious, but the continued use of religious language, and of apparently secular arguments which are simply based on the presupposition of religious principles and prescriptions, continues to dog the footsteps of those who are advocating change in the law respecting assisted dying. This is why, while I applaud Scott McKenna’s support for such change, I cannot accept the terms in which he feels it necessary to do so, for the language of the sanctity-of-life, as I have been trying to point out, and as Mary Warnock so clearly states, is meant to put the matter beyond consideration. I think this is not only clear from the way in which absolutists like Roman Catholics speak about the sanctity-of-life. It is clear from the way that the ideas of holiness and the sacred are used in scripture and theology generally.
This is why I disagree with Scott McKenna’s position. His argument is as follows:
It seems to me perfectly reasonable to argue that life is sacred, endowed with worth and is to be protected, cherished and valued while, at the same time, acknowledge that there are circumstances when it is reasonable, compassionate and moral to hasten the end of life when that life has become intolerable through pain and suffering. God hands us moral responsibility and we have God-given reason and the power of choice. It is not an affront to God to hand back that life; in the circumstances, it is morally sound. The crux of my argument is that, the Roman Catholic Church aside, the absolutist rhetoric of the churches on sanctity of life is not borne out in real life situations. It seems to me that this is a route that we can exploit.
But I will say it once again. Calling life sacred is to go beyond the language of worth, value and respect. The sacred is a well-understood religious category which simply implies untouchability by human hands, or at least by unsanctified human hands; and with the best will in the world I cannot see how the idea of God having handed us moral responsibility makes any difference to this. We are morally responsible for those things for which we are morally responsible. To call something sacred is to remove it from the class of things for which we are morally responsible, and to place it in the unique class of things for which God alone is responsible. That is simply what it means to call something sacred. The sanctity-of-life tradition in ethics makes this very clear, and I could, if it is thought necessary, give any number of quotations that make this point.
This means that, in advocating for a change in the law regarding assisted dying, the religious and the nonreligious will approach things from completely orthogonal viewpoints. It is encouraging to think that people like Scott McKenna are fully in support of assisted dying, but I consider it a grave mistake to continue talking in terms of the sanctity-of-life, for that language was meant, in the first place, to distinguish between those who were willing acknowledge the moral relevance of quality-of-life considerations from those who were not, and continuing to use sanctity-of-life language in latter case merely confuses the issue.
It also, it seems to me, confuses the issue at a crucial point. Most advocates of change in assisted dying laws confine themselves to people who are suffering from terminal diseases, whether the prognosis is six months left of life, as in Oregon, or one year, as is proposed, I believe, in Margo MacDonald’s proposed legislation in Scotland. This is, I have said, and will say again, a grave mistake, and when I think about it, I find that I would have to oppose this legislation, because it is based on the wrong criterion.
But assisted dying advocates have been sold on this criterion because of the way in which religious opponents of assisted dying have argued against it. Religious opponents of assisted dying think that the legalisation of assisted dying will inevitably end in a state of social chaos, where many people will die who do not want to die, simply because of a tendency to extend the criteria for assisted dying beyond those specified by law. This now is a very familiar argument used by those who write in scaremongering ways about euthanasia in the Netherlands. Advocates of assisted dying have bought into the religious fear of the slippery slope. The trouble with this is that there is simply no evidence for the vicious slippery slope that religious opponents of assisted dying continue to claim exists, regardless of the evidence provided.
However, by buying into the religious fear, advocates of assisted dying are going to arouse precisely this fear, if, in fact, the limited scope of the Scottish bill is considered to be a first step towards a more adequate assisted dying regime. The problem is that, if the law as suggested is passed, then the attempt to extend the provisions of the law to those who are not terminally ill will immediately be seen as a confirmation of the religious fear of the slippery slope. They will simply say, “See, we told you. Pass this law, and before long people will demand that it be extended to others who are not now included within the scope of the law.” But the religious argument against assisted dying has nothing to do with slippery slopes. Slippery slopes are simply a pretext for making sure that no law is passed at all, because the real concern here is the sanctity-of-life, and the belief that, if God’s law is ignored, and assisted dying is legalised, then the result will be chaos. God’s law, they think, is there for a reason, and that reason has to do with the protection of that for which God has created the world as we know it, namely the life of human beings. And it is to protect this most important type of life that God has made it sacred and untouchable. Life is within the moral purview of God alone, and woe betide those who tamper with holy things.