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The dubious morality of choice

11 July 2014

"Beyond the reach of reason": how chuch-people are seen as thinking, in The Observer on Sunday

"Beyond the reach of reason": how chuch-people are seen as thinking, in The Observer on Sunday

A SERIES of exchanges in The Guardian showed - quite unintentionally - why the debate on assisted suicide will be lost, and how.

The first thing to say is that it is completely hopeless for a religious believer to speak out against euthanasia, and to claim that their arguments are secular, however sincere or even truthful they may be.

Canon Giles Fraser did his best to make a secular argument in his Saturday column: "I have no absolute religious objection to assisted dying. And as surveys seem to show, nor do most religious people. But I do have a serious anxiety that we hugely underestimate the emotional complexity of giving patients this choice.

"When the moral history of the 21st century comes to be written, I predict we will look back with horror at how the word 'choice' became a sort of cuckoo in the nest, driving out all other values. This week, in an editorial, the BMJ decided that patient choice now trumps the Hippocratic oath. The moral language of the supermarket has become the only moral currency that is accepted.

"Which is why, for me, assisted dying is the final triumph of market capitalism: we have become consumers in everything, even when it comes to life and death. And as history demonstrates, the losers in this equation are always going to be the most vulnerable."

This approaches what is, to me, the strongest argument against changing the law: that the model of individual choice is entirely inadequate to assisted dying, because we are never entirely individual, no matter how lonely we may be; whether we think our life is worth living is determined to a much greater extent than we like to suppose by the people around us.

Talking about "choice" is a way to avoid thinking about power. Those afraid of a change in law see a world in which most old people are superfluous and unwanted, and dying is a bloody nuisance for the spectators.

IF YOU are a member of the choosing classes, this is an awful lot less clear. Catherine Bennett, writing in The Guardian's sister paper, The Observer, on the day after the Fraser piece, had no doubt at all where the blame lay.

She kicked off from the decision that the BBC had been wrong to give credibility to Lord Lawson's views on climate change, but soon moved to her real target.

"If a man of Lord Lawson's stature can be marginalised simply for promulgating obvi-ously fanatical rubbish, supported only by anecdote and untested assertions, what could this mean for, say, religious authorities who are deferred to far more regularly than he ever was?

"Must they, too, be denied their traditional platform, condemning the fashionable consensus on anything from gay marriage and abortion to Sunday trading and the right to die, for no better reason than these activities contravene some personal take on holy writ?

"It does seem a little unfair, for example, that while Lawson is discouraged from airing opinions that occasionally had to do with actual weather conditions, a religious campaigner such as Andrea Williams, a member of the General Synod and chief spokesperson for her own pressure group, Christian Concern, should continue to be accepted as a respectable pundit."

Soon she was into the "bishop-infested House of Lords" and the wicked part it played in defeating the 2006 Bill. At no point does she address the substantial arguments against the Bill. She doesn't need to: the assertion that opponents are religious is enough to disenfranchise their consciences, and render all their arguments inadmissible.

Fraser and Williams are yoked together and consigned to oblivion - a scene that really belongs on a medieval wall-painting of the Last Judgment.

None the less, Bennett is clearly on the winning side here. Part of the problem is that those of us who don't want to change the law do very much want to change the practice. I am thoroughly pro-death. I just don't want it presented as a lifestyle choice. And though this may be an unpopular position, very few people actually believe that life should be preserved at all costs; much that goes on in hospitals is truly dreadful, but this is a consequence of bureaucracy rather than religion.

Few things could bring out more clearly the Church's loss of moral authority in public argument than Bennett's use of Ms Williams, who "does not conceal, as an Evangelical activist, that her zeal has its origin somewhere far beyond the reach of reason and human kindness".

Once a clerical collar is assumed to be a mark of selfish and deceitful inadequacy, there's not much the Church can do to recover its credibility. It might help a little, though if the lay electors of Chichester next year chose someone else to represent them on the General Synod.

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