The Falconer Bill, the Church and the possibility of Christian support for Assisted Dying
Since someone has asked a question about this (in a comment on my last post — from as long ago as March!) I thought it might be worthwhile commenting on what is taking place in England and Wales, where the Falconer Bill on assisted dying is now before the House of Lords, and upon which a decision will be made this Friday (I believe). In the run up to its consideration a former Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed his support for the bill and for assisted dying, and has argued (correctly in my view) that Christianity should be able to accommodate assisted dying, since, quite apart from the church’s responsibility of care for the living, it has an equal responsibility to enable the dying to die with some comfort and dignity. This seems so obvious to me that I wonder what it is that keeps Christian leaders in the opposing camp. Indeed, so opposed are they that they are prepared to trundle out any possible argument they can lay their hands on in order to oppose passage of such bills.
The main objection to the bills has to do with the bills’ danger to the so-called vulnerable. This is a red herring, as a brief study of those jurisdictions where assisted dying has been legalised would show. It is surprising that the argument continues to be made nonetheless. The reason that these arguments are being made, I believe, is that the religious know that religious arguments in and of themselves are irrelevant to the consideration of public policy, so they are consigned to using the weakest arguments around, arguments which have been disproved again and again by the practice of assisted dying where assisted dying is legal. One of the things that the Church of England has never faced head on is that the Swiss have had a very permissive law regarding assisted suicide in their Penal Code since 1941, and no one has yet shown that this law has been misused in the way that Church of England clerics continue to argue that even more stringent laws would be abused if the Falconer Bill were passed.
The Falconer Bill is modeled directly on the assisted suicide bill in the state of Oregon in the United States. It would apply only to those who are terminally ill and have (in the opinion of expert medical opinion) at most six months left to live. Of course, such prognostications are highly fallible, and doctors are today usually reluctant to make such claims. Nevertheless, the use of the bill in Oregon has not shown the slightest degree of misuse, whatever its detractors may say, and it is very doubtful whether it will be misused any more in England and Wales than in Oregon. So the constant harping on such possible misuses is simply a misleading way of expressing the religious objection to assisted dying bills tout court.
On the Church of England home page there is an article by the Rev’d Dr. Malcolm Brown, the Director of Mission and Public Affairs of the Church of England. I sent him a strongly worded letter, but unfortunately a computer crash swallowed it up. Nevertheless, Brown’s undergrduate essay itself is still there to show how really shallow that church’s argument against assisted dying really is. The assisted dying bill is all about choice, he says,
But talk about choice on that day in the future when I am wholly dependent on the people around me, when my life is almost over and I have far more chance of pleasing others by getting out of their way quietly than of making much difference to my own situation, and my choice won’t be about me, it will be about them. And those last days of life, surely, are precisely the moment when choices ought to be about the one approaching the end – and no one else.
Which just shows how cynical the church can be when it comes to making an argument. In my experience, and, I assume, in Brown’s experience too, if he’s ever done any pastoral work with the dying, it is simply false to suggest, as he does, that any choices he might make in the conditions in questions, has
far more chance of pleasing others by getting out of their way quietly than of making much difference to my own situation, and my choice won’t be about me, it will be about them.
This is simply false (though there is no reason not to take the feelings of others into account). There may be cases in which families might like to hurry their “loved” ones into a grave, but they are very few, and there is no reason why such pressure should no be detected by sensitive people. Even those whose family life has not been ideal, at the time of death, approach death with enormous seriousness, and most would do anything to keep their loved one alive. Besides, in a regime where the option of assisted dying is on offer, this is something that will be known by everyone long before hand, and they will have made up their own minds as to how they wish to die. Brown seems to be suggesting that the only time that assisted dying will be on the menu will be at the very end when the dying person may be in no position to make a choice. If this were true, then those who have responsibility for spelling out the options long before then, will not have been doing their job.
Brown’s argument is very like the silly argument made by the “loose Canon” that “assisted dying is the final triumph of market capitalism.” Like Brown, he thinks the availability of assisted dying will put pressure on the dying to get out of the way and save their loved ones emotional trauma. He even suggests that he has nothing in principle against assisted dying. In his own words:
I have no absolute religious objection to assisted dying. And as surveys seem to show, nor do most religious people. But I do have a serious anxiety that we hugely underestimate the emotional complexity of giving patients this choice. For what it says to many people who are dying (and because of that, often exhausted and confused) is that it is now within their power to relieve the emotional distress of those who surround them.
Giles Fraser has simply not been paying attention. In Oregon there is no evidence that assisted dying is being used to relieve emotional distress of famllies. Indeed, quite the contrary, if the stats are anything to go by. Very few people die with assistance. Indeed, many who receive a prescription for a lethal medication never use it. It is the reassurance that if their suffering becomes very great that they will have the opportunity to take their dying into their own hands that is the really important thing. What is surprising about Giles Fraser is that he says he has nothing in principle against assisted dying. If so, then, if he has been paying attention, he would know that his argument is empty. He is just parroting the usual religious line, but, just to show that he is not lacking in compassion, remarks that he has nothing against it in principle. Such a smoke screen should not mislead us as to his real argument, which, as usual with the religious, have to do with religious principles.
Luckily, some churchmen have been paying attention and both Desmund Tutu and George Carey, the first a former Archbishop of Capetown, the other the Archbishop of Canterbury who preceeded Rowan Williams, have come out in favour of assisted dying. However, the case that most affected George Carey is one which would not have been helped by the Falconer Bill now before the House of Lords, a bill which, in its understanding of assisted dying and the reasons for it is completely wide of the mark. For what is at issue here is not terminal illness, but intolerable conditions of life, of which Tony Nicklinson was an example. Nicklinson might have lived for many many years, but his quality of life was such that he felt it was time to go. The Falconer Bill would have been of no help to him, or to Sue Rodriguez in Canada, or to my wife, who might well have lived in total paralysis for another ten or fifteen years. The Falconer Bill is a big mistake. I would like to see it fail in order to make room for a bill which would really address the needs of the suffering. Because one can suffer intolerably long before terminal illness within six months has set in. George Carey himself knows this, given the example that he uses. It may be that his intervention will change the vote in the House of Lords, but it ought not to, because Falconer’s bill is completely inadequate to the issue to which it offers itself as a solution. The question here is one of autonomy, and autonomy should be available to anyone who is suffering unduly, and for whom only death can release them from that suffering. I am encouraged, of course, by Carey’s and Tutu’s responses, but I hope they will think again, before supporting bills which are inadequate to their purpose.
An additional point. One of the well worn arguments against assisted dying is the so-called “slippery slope argument.” The Falconer Bill, unfortunately, is one which will simply confirm this in the minds of its opponents. The bill is itself inadequate. It does not take into consideration cases of suffering which should be included within its purview, and because it doesn’t people will soon realise it and demand that the bill’s scope be widened. Immediately the slippery slope crowd will jump in with an “I told you so!”, because widening the scope of the bill will be taken to be an example of the slippery slope in action instead of an perfectly reasonable extension of the bill to those whose great suffering can only be brought to an end by death. It won’t be a slippery slope, but it will be crowed out far and wide as the beginning of the slide down the slope, though in fact it would only be a recognition that the original bill was inadequate to the purposes it was meant to serve. I say, defeat the bill, and replace it with something more robust. The vote will take place this Friday.