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Polly Toynbee is up in arms again today, attacking religious leaders for their opposition to Rob Marris’ private member’s bill, which would legislate for assisted suicide. Her problem is not that opposition to the bill exists per se, but the nature of the opposition she sees coming from religious communities. What really gets her goat is the idea that such opposition is the result of a belief system – namely a faith that (in her words) “only God decides the time of our death.”
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What is interesting is that this language – the idea that only God can decide someone’s fate – has been decidedly absent from the current debate. Few, if any, appeals to the sovereignty of God have been made in order to explain why we shouldn’t interfere in life and death. For Toynbee, this is all a matter of subterfuge. Christians have simply been hiding their faith–based concern for God’s pre–eminence under a cloud of secular rhetoric.
Such an attitude completely fails, however, to get to the heart of what is going on when Christians and religious leaders voice opposition to assisted suicide. When faith leaders wrote to MPs recently to explain their opposition to the bill, it was not an attempt to impose personal religious beliefs on wider society. Their opposition to assisted suicide did not arise, as Toynbee imagines, from a concern for God’s sovereignty over life and death. After all, the vast majority of religious groups have no problem interfering in ‘fate’ when it comes to extending someone’s life. Rather, the ‘religious’ attitude is one borne of a very real concern for some of the most vulnerable individuals within our communities.
For many people of faith, and particularly Christian leaders, the biggest concern that would arise were the assisted suicide bill to be passed into law is that those who are nearing the final stages of a terminal disease might wish to end their life, not because they think that to be the best option for them personally, but because they feel it would be the best option for others; that however much a terminally ill patient might want to remain alive, the thought of running up debts for their families, or being an emotional and physical burden, would compel them to seek an early death. For Christians and non–Christians alike, this would doubtless be an abject failure of the system.
Supporters of assisted suicide respond to this suggestion by pointing out that the bill protects against such a failure, in requiring two doctors to establish that the patient’s wish to die comes from a “voluntary, clear, settled and informed wish”. If a patient was seeking death on the grounds that they felt their death would be a reprieve for others, the implication is that such a patient would inevitably fail the test of “voluntary, clear, settled and informed wish”.
Regardless of the difficulties in a system where doctors (usually untrained in the art of psychological analysis) are required to make such judgements, this response fails to acknowledge a key reality of the human condition – that we are capable of self–sacrifice. One can very easily “wish” something that they do not want to happen, if they believe that there is something greater to be gained. And particularly if they believe the happiness of their loved ones is at stake.
There is a reason why Christians have tended, by and large, to be more alive to this concern than other members of the public. Because against a secular liberalism focused on the principle of autonomy above all things, a central tenet of the Christian creed is the belief that humans can wish the ‘wrong’ thing. That there is a disparity between what we conceive to be right and what is actually right. This is the basis of much of the religious opposition to assisted suicide – not that God should remain sovereign over the moment of our death, but that the elderly, the vulnerable and the terminally ill might choose, with a voluntary, clear, settled and informed wish, to sacrifice themselves on the altar of someone else’s convenience.
Christian voices do not have a monopoly on truth when it comes to issues raised in the public sphere. But neither should they be ignored – and especially on an issue such as care for the dying. In perhaps no other sector has the Christian contribution been so instrumental as in the development of the modern hospice movement, while Christian clergy have sat and ministered to the dying for centuries. The concerns of the religious are not abstract or irrelevant, but rooted in centuries of lived experience. They deserve to be listened to with respect.
Tom Andrew is the author of the Theos report, The Church and the Charter: Christianity and the Forgotten Roots of the Magna Carta
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