MEMBERS of Parliament will vote on the Assisted Dying Bill on 11 September. The Bill seeks to change the law so that terminally ill patients with six months to live can be helped to die, subject to approval from doctors and a judge.
Clearly this is a deeply emotive issue. Anyone who has seen a loved one experience agony at the end of his or her life will know how high feelings can run when questions of assisted suicide are even raised. While the Church of England maintains opposition to the Bill, the recent intervention by Lord Carey is a reminder that not all believers feel the same.
As a long-standing campaigner against assisted suicide, I believe that the key to this whole issue lies in arriving at a biblical understanding of what it means to be a burden on each other.
Writing to the churches across Galatia, the Apostle Paul commands Christians to carry one other’s burdens, because this fulfils the law of Christ (Galatians 6.2). I think St Paul had in mind that it is when we follow this command that we learn that to be a burden on others is not selfish or wrong, but a fundamental good that we should be keen to uphold. It is by being a burden on others that we truly learn what it means to be human.
This is important, because statistics suggest that some people cite fear of being a burden as a reason for opting for assisted suicide. In the state of Washington, in the United States, 59 per cent of those who sought assisted suicide said that being a burden was one of their main reasons for doing so.
Either we abandon challenging this fear by telling people that we want them to be a burden on us, or we give in and start quietly encouraging the elderly, weak, and infirm to start killing themselves.
The Old Testament laws made provisions for the elderly: the commandments that guaranteed their protection and afforded them respect. In the company of the aged, for example, Israelites were to stand up as a mark of respect; and they were commanded to honour the elderly (Leviticus 19.32).
In the New Testament, St Paul tells Timothy to exhort older men as fathers and older women as mothers (1 Timothy 5.1-2). The point he is making is surely the same as the one encapsulated in the Leviticus laws: honour older people, treat them well.
In both Testaments, the Bible has a high view of the vulnerable and the aged, the very same groups as would be most threatened by the latest Assisted Dying Bill.
In a Christian world-view, being dependent is not an alien construct, but is woven into the reality of being human. This outlook runs counter-culturally against the popular post-modern and individualistic world-view that worships at the altar of self.
The genius of the Christian ethic is that it encourages us not just to bear the burdens of others, but also to be a burden on others. In the incarnation, Christ willingly took on the frailty of flesh: he willingly became dependent.
Assisted suicide runs contrary to a truly Christian world-view because it suggests that the value of life for some can be lost. But our value as human beings is not tied up in our circumstances, but is an invisible reality because of God’s handprint upon us.
The Christian philosopher Joseph Pieper (1904-97) said that it was by demonstrating our love towards others that we were saying to them: “It is good that you exist.” This is absolutely right. When we look at the example of our Lord, we read that he valued people, and saw their dignity as something inherent, not dictated by circumstances.
Consider how he allowed the woman to wash his feet (Luke 7.38). The Pharisee whose house Christ was at was appalled. But Jesus saw beyond her circumstances, in a recognition that she was a human being, made in the image of God. She might not have been valued by the rulers, but Christ, the ultimate ruler of all things, did value her.
He did not despise the disabled, as evidenced when he healed the cripple who was lowered through the roof (Luke 5.20). By these examples, Christ evidenced his love not just on the cross, but also in the way he looked out for the weary, carried the burdens of the weak, and talked to the forgotten. To the tax-collector Zacchaeus, Christ was a friend; to the humble fisherman Peter, Christ became a mentor; and to a thief on a cross, he was the means of his final salvation.
Our supreme example is Christ, because in becoming a man, he became a burden, and in his life’s ministry, he carried burdens. He was dependent and was depended upon. That is how society can flourish, when we willingly depend and can be depended upon — not when we quietly start encouraging suicide.
It is vital that as a society we do not go down the route of legalising assisted suicide. We need to urge our MPs to vote on 11 September. We all need to send a clear message to the elderly, vulnerable, and terminally ill that their life still has value — no matter how desperate their circumstances — and that we, as a society, will help them to live, not to die.
Nola Leach is the CEO of the Christian charity CARE (www.care.org.uk).
The second extract from The Wilderness Within by Nicholas Buxton will appear next week.