The liberty lost with assisted death

21 March 2014

THE trouble with assisted dying is that both sides can claim a moral case. For those opposed, if it becomes legal, it will almost certainly pave the way for more active forms of euthanasia, with all the potential for abuse that this will bring. I can see now the headlines about how granny was snuffed out in her care home because she had become an inconvenience to her family and the staff; followed by the usual public enquiries and hand-wringing.

Church people are familiar with the arguments against assisted dying because they have been well and eloquently put, and they remain valid. But there is another case to hear, which is that of those who have lived through the terminal illness of helpless relatives, and are now genuinely frightened that there will be no one to help them, should a time come when life has become intolerable.

Christians need to consider this case, even if, in the end, they come down against it. We need to recognise that contemporary medicine can keep very sick people alive for much longer now than used to be possible: alive, but not necessarily free from deep distress.

A second consideration is that there is no secret escape through a doctor's discretion. When I was a child, I remember hearing my parents talk about an acquaintance who was dying of cancer. When things got bad, his doctor had ascertained that he did not want to go on, and fixed a date to come round and deliver a fatal dose of morphine. It was illegal, of course, but it probably happened more often than we might imagine. Since then, however, the murders committed by Harold Shipman have alerted the public to the potential abuse of a GP's power.

If assisted dying becomes law, there will be safeguards and protocols. But these will have their own impact. If I were desperate to die, I might baulk at the process of getting my wishes agreed by two doctors, with forms to sign, and so on and all the distress that could cause to my family. A private process reached quietly with a sympathetic doctor is one thing; getting legal permission to die is quite another.

I still oppose the legalisation of assisted dying. But my main reason now is a fear of the intrusion of the state into what I believe should always be a private and hidden decision. It is because it cannot be private and hidden any more that we agonise about it, and wonder what liberty we could be losing in pursuit of the greatest liberty of all: to control the time and manner of our death.

The Revd Angela Tilby is Diocesan Canon of Christ Church, Oxford, and Continuing Ministerial Development Adviser for the diocese of Oxford.

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