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‘Any man’s death diminishes me’

12 January 2012

Changes to law on assisted dying are unnecessary, says Elaine Storkey

THE report from the Commission on Assisted Dying last week was entirely predictable. Its key recommendation — that we legalise assisted suicide for terminally ill adults with less than a year to live — surprised no one. Indeed, what other outcome was likely from an initiative established and funded by leading supporters of the pro-euthanasia group Dignity in Dying?

I am sure that members of the commission were serious and painstaking in their attempt to listen to the views of significant bodies. But they were not morally or philosophically neutral. Most of them had made up their minds on the issues long before the commission was convened; many — even the chairman, Lord Falconer — had already campaigned for the law to be changed.

So it is easy to understand the refusal of the BMA and the 40 other organisations who were asked to give evidence to the commission but declined; its stated purpose was incompatible with their position.

The response to the report has also been predictable. It triggered the usual media opportunities for sad and emotive stories. We were reminded, as if we did not already know, of the painful suffering faced by those with deter­i­orat­ing and debilitating illnesses. We heard organisations opposed to changes in the law outline the inadequacy of the report’s recommendations and the assumptions it made.

Some commentators called it a “propaganda exercise” or “part of a concerted and determined campaign to normalise the idea of euthanasia”. Yet, although the overall response has been more negative than positive, the project surely achieved what was intended by its sponsors. It highlighted the possibility of giving very ill people the legal right to choose how they should die.

The conclusions of the report were reached despite the well-argued submissions of those who had misgivings about loosening the law. Several people who appeared before the commission took issue with its concepts of autonomy. Baroness O’Neill, for example, argued that it was not possible to draft adequate safeguards “without invoking misleading and unrealisable fantasies about individual autonomy”. People are not “autonomous”: they are always connected to others, not least to the professionals whom they are asking to assist them in suicide.

Others challenged the notion of compassion, seeing it as equally applicable to vulnerable, elderly people who may feel that they have become a burden on their families, and, once legal prohibitions are removed, under pressure to end their lives. It is significant that organisations that serve the elderly and disabled remain strongly opposed to changing the law on assisted dying. The consensus seems to be that the current law provides the safeguards that the commission’s proposed replacements do not.

Christian responses to euthanasia used to be centred on the “sanctity of life”: life is given us by God, and is held in sacred trust before God. This truth remains, and yet carries little weight with those for whom life is intolerable, or who have no time for God. Biblical theology goes much further than this, however.

To weigh legislation, we also need to draw on our theology of compassion, justice, the protection of the vulnerable, and the common good. We need laws that go beyond minority individuals and protect all who are elderly, sick, or vulnerable.

We need laws that show leniency towards those who act unlawfully out of genuine love, but that still require every case to face scrutiny by police and the Director of Public Prosecutions — who will prosecute when necessary. We need laws that defend those who have no voice against coercion, exploitation, or abuse, and ensure that they have the right to live.

Our current law is not perfect, but in a messy world it is probably as good as we can get. And it gives us every opportunity of being a compassionate and just society.

Dr Elaine Storkey is president of Tearfund.

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