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A response to Lord Carey on assisted suicide

A response to Lord Carey on assisted suicide

By James Mildred
Christian Today
01 June 2023

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey, has told MPs that legalising assisted suicide is "profoundly Christian". He wrote to them as the Health and Social Care Committee continues to take evidence as part of its formal inquiry into the current law.

Currently assisted suicide and euthanasia (the former refers to doctors helping patients kill themselves and the latter involves the doctor administering the lethal injection themselves) are illegal across the UK. Lord Carey has been a consistent advocate for assisted suicide. He is an experienced church leader and I admire the stance that he has taken on other issues. But on this one, I must respectfully, but firmly disagree.

I believe his position undermines key biblical doctrines. And I worry too that while it comes across as reasonable and compassionate, the reality is the conversation around assisted suicide needs to be much more nuanced: it is not the case that either side of the debate has a monopoly on compassion.

Lord Carey's arguments in favour of law change are not new: assisting someone in their suicide, he says, is an "act of great generosity, kindness and human love", looking to end their suffering and release them from pain.

The problem with this is that it is a far less compassionate position than it appears. It is built on a shaky assumption: that we could safely pass an assisted suicide law that would allow a small number of people the option of being helped to kill themselves in certain, strictly regulated circumstances.

This fails to account for what's happening in places like Canada. There, assisted suicide was legalised in 2016 and a mere five years later, the eligibility criteria had been vastly expanded and key safeguards were quietly dropped as public opinion shifted. One former Paralympian simply wanted a stairlift to be put in her home. In reply, the official sent her a leaflet about assisted suicide. That doesn't sound like a compassionate society to me.

People complain that appealing to a hypothetical slippery slope isn't a valid argument; Canada shows that it is not a myth, but a reality. Legalising assisted suicide for terminally ill adults with six months left to live (why should it be only six?), as was proposed by Baroness Meacher recently in the House of Lords, would simply be a first step.

Indeed, in an aging society which cannot fund an increasingly bloated health service, there is a danger that a right to die would become a duty to die. Right now, if your relative or friend is terminally ill, you have the assurance of knowing that all the doctors who are helping are legally bound to work for the preservation of life.

But if assisted suicide was legal, could we be sure coercion, manipulation or abuses would not take place? After all, the stakes here are as high as it gets! If you can't guarantee such cases wouldn't occur, then I would suggest it's too big a risk to make this law change.

I simply cannot agree with Lord Carey that legalising assisted suicide is an act of 'human love', let alone generosity and kindness. True Christian love is sacrificial and focused on others. It will say 'no' when our loved ones request from us help to do something we know is harmful.

We live in a society where suffering is viewed an interruption, to be avoided, minimised and prevented at all possible costs. I completely get this view. I'm so aware that you might be reading this and right now, you're watching a loved one fade before your very eyes with a debilitating illness. That is brutal and calls for sympathy and empathy.

Lord Carey would say the Bible has nothing directly to say that would prohibit assisted suicide being legalised. While that's true in the sense there's no one verse that explicitly outlaws it, I suggest that actually, if you pull together various biblical teachings, you'd find the Bible not only teaches us that assisted suicide is wrong, but also helps us grapple with the problem of suffering.

The Bible teaches that life is a gift from God (Psalm 139, 1 Samuel 2:6) and that human life is beautifully valuable because we're made in God's image, elevated over everything else He's made. It also teaches us that intentional ending of someone else's life is wrong (Exodus 20:6). Surely that includes assisted suicide and euthanasia, where in either scenario, the doctor is facilitating the intentional ending of someone's life.

And the Bible offers a far better story for what we're do with suffering than the story our society gives us. In a Biblical worldview, suffering is not meaningless. Often it is in the midst of suffering that we discover more about ourselves and our relationships with others can be incredibly deepened. One story I remember involved a man who secretly recorded audio which suggested doctors had ordered an assisted suicide, when he'd repeatedly asked to live at home.

And the Bible also teaches us that God Himself, in the person of Jesus Christ, experienced suffering. In fact, he went through suffering far deeper and greater than any human being will ever endure. We believe in a God who knows what suffering feels like and is well able to walk alongside us and help us. God is called the God of all comfort and the father of compassion, not because He never sends suffering, but because in our suffering, He helps us.

From what Lord Carey said to MPs, he thinks that while this teaching works for some, obviously many don't believe it and therefore, for them, we should legalise assisted suicide.

In response I'd ask: is killing really the compassionate response to someone's suffering? Surely offering pain relief, psychological support and human companionship is better? Palliative medicine means helping the whole person, addressing their physical and their emotional pain and trauma. For my mind, this is a far more consistent, compassionate and Christian response to suffering than assisted suicide.

James Mildred is Director of Communications and Engagement at CARE, which works to bring a uniquely Christian insight to UK law and policy.

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