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Life, Death and Faith
2nd August 2012
“No understanding of life is complete unless it has in it a place for death, which comes to each and every human with unfailing inevitability.”
These are the words of Mr Justice Hedley, as he ruled yesterday that a comatose one-year-old (known only as X) should be allowed to die against the wishes of the child’s parents. While doctors, caring for X since a “catastrophic accident” in May, felt that the chances of recovery were untenable, the baby’s devoutly religious parents felt compelled by their faith to hold on to the smallest hope of recovery and resist attempts to switch off the ventilator. After much deliberation, Justice Hedley eventually came down in favour of the doctors, agreeing that the removal of ventilation and the implementation of palliative care were in the best interests of the baby.
No attempt should be made to second-guess the motives or intentions of X’s parents. I raise this case, not because we can ever come down with a clear ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ in a complex and difficult case like this, but because Justice Hedley’s careful response highlights one of the most difficult, and yet beautiful, juxtapositions to lie at the heart of religious belief, and particularly the Christian faith – the celebration of life, even in death. Just like doctors, who can witness the beginning of one life and the end of another all in the space of a single day, so clergy and pastors around the world can go from celebrating new life in baptism to honouring its end in little more than a weekend. Drawing from the central narrative of the Christian tradition – the death and resurrection of Jesus – the Christian Church helps place this tension between death and life right at the heart of modern society, whether it realises it or not.
Our society has become increasingly afraid of talking about death. It seems like the longer we live and the more sophisticated our medical treatment becomes, the more afraid we’ve become of recognising the limits of our own mortality or accepting that we cannot always be in control of our fate. A report published in Medical Decision Making last year , suggested that oncologists in the US placed a higher value on quantity than quality of life, being more willing to pay high prices for life-extending treatments than for drugs that improved life-quality for terminal patients. Extending life-duration may be a more tangible measure of medical success and advance, but when we push for life-prolonging treatments at all costs, regardless of the welfare of the individual concerned, we have surely missed the point.
While the search for ‘cures’ to illness receives enormous amounts of support from the British government, the funding of palliative care and hospice care in England has been largely left to the voluntary sector and local community. Important steps have been taken towards a redress of the balance, with the governments recent white paper called ‘Caring for our future’, which placed a big emphasis on end of life care. Yet the desperate scramble to hold on to life remains deeply ingrained within out national psyche. Society has become so concerned with staving off death that it has forgotten the importance of allowing people to actually live and die in peace.
As with all such things, there is a need to find the middle ground, between love and affirmation of life, and a respect for the inevitability of death; between hope for healing and restoration, and recognition of the limits of human control. Religious faith can help us find that balance. In discouraging the deification of the self in contemporary society, religious belief can play a vital role in reminding us of our own limits – that we do not reign supreme over nature, or even our own bodies. In placing its hope in something beyond this world, Christian faith can remind us that there are more important things in life than the continual postponement of death. And in choosing to celebrate life, even as we mourn its passing, the Church can remind us that death and life are inextricably woven together.
Tom Andrew is currently studying Divinity at the University of Edinburgh and is an intern at Theos
Photograph: Johan Doe