There is nothing sacred in suffering—it's time to bring in assisted dying

The right to live one’s life to the very end does not imply the religious obligation to do so, especially if that end is a travesty

July 17, 2017
Noel Conway is petitioning for the right to day. Photo:  PA
Noel Conway is petitioning for the right to day. Photo: PA

It will come as a shock to many readers that numerous vicars and rabbis are supporting the case of Noel Conway. The terminally ill former social sciences lecturer has motor neurone disease and is appealing to the High Court this week for permission to have an assisted death.

This would involve a doctor giving him a medical potion that he could take to end his life before the inevitable suffering became unbearable.

At present, though, this is illegal—and the doctor would be liable to prosecution.

Under the current law, Noel’s options are all bad ones: he could either try to commit suicide (with the risk of botching it up), carry on (and face increasing pain), or go to Dignitas in Switzerland (but this would involve considerable expense and discomfort, as well as dying abroad).

It is true that both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Chief Rabbi have come out strongly against allowing assisted dying, but there are a growing number of religious voices who think it can be appropriate in certain circumstances. We have banded together to form an inter-faith group of clergy in favour of assisted dying (IFDiD).

Why are faith leaders changing their minds?

The change is because the two traditional objections are now crumbling.

The first of these objections was pastoral, based on concerns that abuse could take place if a change in the law is enacted. This might include attempts by unscrupulous families to dispatch an elderly relative who is becoming a burden to them—or a rich one whose fortune they want to inherit as soon as possible.

But potential abuses should not be a block to helping deserving cases. The answer, instead, is to put safeguards in place that can protect a positive approach.

These are entrenched in the series of conditions put forward by the campaigning organisation, Dignity in Dying, all of which would need to be fulfilled before assisted dying was permitted. These rules stipulate that it would only be for those who are terminally ill (verified by two independent doctors), who are suffering unbearably, who are mentally competent, who request it (verified by two independent witnesses who are not beneficiaries)—and that the patient could change their mind at any point.

The theological aspect

The other objection was theological, related to notions of the sanctity of life—a gift of God that is to be valued above all else. We in IFDiD agree that life is sacred, but in our congregational work, we have seen too many people die in great pain who should have been allowed to pass away earlier, as they had wished. That, too, is part of valuing them.

Hospices do wonderful work, but even they cannot alleviate all pain, nor give dignity to those who limbs no longer obey them and are reduced to being totally dependent on others.

Those who find suffering enriching or worth enduring to their last breath deserve every support—but in whose interest are we forcing a person to stay alive who wishes to let go of life?

In the Bible, we are told that ‘There is a time to be born and a time to die’ (Ecclesiastes 3.2)—but it is noticeable that this verse does not stipulate who chooses that moment. Until now, we have always assumed that it was God.

Our actions tell a different story. We see no problem in usurping God’s role by intervening when we deem fit, prolonging life through interventions such as blood transfusions or limb transplants. Similarly, we should also be able to bring life to a gentle close within the above limits and safeguards.

There is nothing sacred in suffering

This change of heart is not limited to members of the clergy: a poll conducted in 2015 by Populus showed that 79 per cent of people who are religious are in favour of assisted dying, almost exactly the same percentage as in the general population, as revealed in the British social attitudes survey issued last month.

The image of religious leaders holding aloft the Ten Commandments and thundering down ‘Thou shalt not kill’ is more akin to the world of Anthony Trollope than the 21st century. Instead, we assert that there is nothing sacred about suffering, nothing holy about agony and those who wish to avoid it should be able to do so—as a human right but also in keeping with religious ethics.

There is no doubt that this is difficult territory, but it is appropriate to try to navigate it. The right to live one’s life to the very end does not imply the religious obligation to do so, especially if that end is a travesty of the person’s life and everything that has gone beforehand.

If there is a right to die well—or at least to die as well as possible—it means having the option of assisted dying, whether or not it is taken up.