Under an earlier post, Scott McKenna, who wants, as many of you will know, to continue using the conception of the sanctity of life, though not, he says, in an absolute sense, remarked as follows:
The Church of Scotland states that there are circumstances in which it is permissible to have an abortion, such as when the life of the mother is at risk. No absolute sanctity here.
The claim, I think, that there is no absolute sanctity here, is questionable. It is possible, in various ways, to work around the notion of absolute sanctity so as to produce justifications for acts in which a death occurs. This is what the Principle of Double Effect (PDE) is all about. Its purpose is to preserve the idea of sanctity while at the same time preventing the sanctity of life from producing counterintuitive consequences.
The PDE has its origin in Thomas Aquinas’ defence of killing in self-defence, which is worthwhile quoting in some detail. You can find it in his Summa Theologica, II-II, Question 64, Article 7: “Whether it is Lawful to Kill a Man in Self-defence?” In response to the objections to the claim that it is, Aquinas answers as follows:
I answer that Nothing hinders one act from having two effects, only one of which is intended, while the other is beside the intention. Now moral acts take their species according to what is intended, and not according to what is beside the intention, since this is accidental as explained above. Accordingly the act of self-defence may have two effects, one is the saving of one’s life, the other is the slaying of the aggressor. Therefore this act, since one’s intention is to save one’s own life, is not unlawful, seeing it is natural to everything to keep itself in being, as far as possible. And yet, though proceeding from a good intention, an act may be rendered unlawful, if it be out of proportion to the end. Wherefore if a man, in self-defence, uses more than necessary violence, it will be unlawful: whereas if he repel force with moderation his defence will be lawful, because according to the jurists, “it is lawful to repel force by force, provided one does not exceed the limits of a blameless defence.”
Now, it is clear, I think, that the PDE as thus understood can easily serve its turn in justifying abortion where the woman’s life is in danger. The Roman Catholic Church seems to be under the misapprehension that, if saving the mother involves the “direct” killing of the foetus, the PDE does not apply, as was argued in the case of the woman in Phoenix, when a nun was excommunicated on the strength of this misunderstanding of Aquinas’ argument.
However, it is not at all clear in Aquinas’ discussion of the PDE that such an act is forbidden. For Aquinas is clearly arguing that a single act can be both an act of killing and an act of self-defence, and that the intention of defending oneself is a sufficient basis upon which to argue that a killing is lawful, so long as the force used is not disproportionate. In the case of the abortion in Phoenix there is no reason, on Aquinas’ argumentation, that the abortion could be described as (i) the killing of a foetus, and (ii) the saving of the woman’s life, and the primary intention in aborting the foetus was to save the woman’s life, not to kill the foetus. That may not cut much ice with Roman Catholic theologians, but there is no obvious reason that the PDE could not justly have been applied to the situation in Phoenis. Therefore, in fact, Scott McKenna’s claim that the Church of Scotland’s recognition that abortion is justified when the woman’s life is in danger does not, in fact, undermine the absoluteness of the notion of the sanctity of life.
The limited point I am making here is simply that Scott has not provided a reason why the Church of Scotland should go on, based on its approval of abortion when the woman’s life is in danger, also to give support to assisted dying, which, I believe, they in fact do not do. But if they do not, there is no reason to suppose that their opposition to assisted dying is not based on the absolute sanctity of life doctrine. This, in general, I think, is the reason why assisted dying runs into greater difficulties than abortion with the churches, because, while abortion where the woman’s life is in danger seems able to be dealt with by the PDE, and seems, moreover, intuitively, to be, quite simply, morally justified, it is not in the same way clear that assisted dying can be dealt with in a similar way. It is true that the PDE is often used in end-of-life situations, where an act can be described in two different ways as both (i) relief from pain, and (ii) an act of killing; but, in general, more actively seeking death, when life has become intolerable, does not always fit into this neat schema, and it may be thought never to fit when the person involved is possibly far from death, as Tony Nicklinson was. He might have been kept alive for years, so the only way he could escape was by refusing food and antibiotics.
This is one of the reasons why I keep insisting that we stop the charade of speaking about assisted dying only in terms of the end of life. Lots of people suffer even more, and their suffering may be more intense and prolonged than that suffered by people at the end of life, and yet so few of those agencies supporting assisted dying at the end of life seem to care about them. This is based mainly upon religious considerations, even if this is not recognised, and it is high time that people supporting assisted dying got out of this religious mind-set, and recognised that the issue is about two things and two things only: intolerable suffering and choice. No other foundation for assisted dying is either reasonable or justified. Assigning decision to someone other than the person who is suffering intolerably, as Tony Nicklinson was, is placing the emphasis in the wrong place. This is about the rights of individuals, not about religious scruples.
Having come to this point, I think it would be a great pity if Margo MacDonald’s bill were passed by the Scottish parliament. Passing it would almost certainly mean that the Scots as well as others who might model their own legislation on this inadequate piece of legislation, will be hung up for another generation or two by the illegitimate power wielded by the religions, which should be being sedulously ignored, while emphasis is place where it should be, on all those who suffer intolerably in ways that only death can relieve.