False Steps in the Assisted Dying Debate

By August 8, 2014 Recent News

Fulcrum 14 July 2014
As we approach the House of Lords’ debate on Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill, it is clear that there is a concerted attempt to undermine the church’s traditional opposition to laws enabling the killing of the suffering and dying.  There have always been some Christians who have supported this, such as Hans Kung and Paul Badham and in recent times Canon Rosie Harper has been a prominent Anglican voice.  They have now been joined by two senior retired Archbishops, George Carey and Desmond Tutu.  What is astonishing, looking at their articles, is not only their lack of theological content but the number of serious flaws and confusions in their arguments.  The debate is clearly entering a new phase and it would be a shame if these misleading claims were perpetuated and so prevented a proper reasoned discussion.  What follows offers the briefest of sketches of some of the main false steps in recent Christian arguments.
First, letting go is not the same as assisted killing.  Archbishop Tutu makes great play of the fact that “What was done to Madiba (Nelson Mandela) was disgraceful” and George Carey claims that “sophisticated medical science also offers people the chance to be kept alive far beyond anything that would have been possible only a few years ago”.  These are valid arguments to consider the amount of intervention to prolong life.  They are not arguments for ending life.  Assisting people to approach death with dignity through the provision of appropriate medical care and support and the non-provision of useless or burdensome treatments must be distinguished as a separate category from assisting them to bring about their death, for example, by prescribing lethal drugs whose only purpose is to end their life.
Second, easing pain is not the same as assisted killing. George Carey notes that “church leaders already understand that the use of pain medication such as morphine may occasionally have the effect of hastening death” and then asks “Why not extend this understanding further, so that the dying have a choice over how and when they wish their lives to end?”.  Leaving aside the fact that properly administered pain medication is very unlikely to hasten death and the seemingly uncritical acceptance of unfettered individual autonomy, this simply ignores the important distinction between intended and unintended outcomes of our actions.  Pain relief intends to ease pain, lethal injections intend to kill and prescribing lethal drugs intends to enable killing.  To facilitate or enact the last two actions does not “extend the understanding” that allows the first.  It represents a totally different, perhaps consequentialist, ethic in which either the intention of the agent is irrelevant or the intention to kill or assist in self-killing is held, in this case, to be good.