From Mrs Mary P. Roe
Sir, — In agreement with Nola Leach (Faith, 21 August), I value the Old Testament very highly, and think that I probably take my sermon theme from the Old Testament reading more often than the average preacher. I don’t, however, think that it contains the definitive answers to all our 21st- century dilemmas.
I am sure no Christian would dispute the desirability of behaving towards older and frailer members of our society in the way set out in Leviticus and elsewhere. During the 3000 years or more that have elapsed since those words were written, medicine has, however, advanced out of all recognition, to the point where we feel compelled to keep a severely damaged body and distressed soul together at all costs. Death is no longer regarded as the “old man’s friend”, but as an enemy to be fought to the bitter end of an often unreasonably prolongued battle. Death is regarded as a failure on our part.
Surely this approach is the result of human pride or hubris quite as much as when sufferers in great pain at any age, but especially at the end of a normal span of life, long to cease receiving treatment that they regard as pointless and beg those who are “managing” their condition to let them be and allow nature to take her course. Both parties in such a situation can be accused of “playing God”, but the terminally sick person seems to me to have a better claim on our understanding.
Of course, we must never allow a basically wrong attitude to age and sickness to encourage anyone to opt to “get out of everyone’s way and not be a burden”; but neither should we ignore the pleas for mercy of someone who is experiencing as unnecessary cruelty what is often, but not always, well-intentioned intervention.
I am puzzled by Mrs Leach’s apparent recommendation that sufferers should be persuaded, if not compelled, to endure their situation, and be reassured that being a burden is a good thing for them to be, because bearing it benefits the rest of us. The problem is extremely complex. I doubt we can solve it by simply “playing it by the book”, even when that book is the Old (or even the New) Testament.
MARY P. ROE
1 The North Lodge, Kings End
Bicester OX26 6NT
From Canon Peter Holliday
Sir, — In your 21 August edition, your leader comment “Dying with dignity”, together with Nola Leach’s article (Faith) on a biblical understanding of burden, are timely correctives to the contemporary understanding of dignity.
My wife and I had the privilege of caring for my mother as she died from pancreatic cancer. In her final weeks, I had to offer to care for her most intimate needs, something I would previously have denied I could ever do. Not only was the conversation in which I sought her permission to care for her in this way the most loving and intimate conversation we had ever had: I also encountered my mother at her most dignified through the way in which she accepted my care, a part of what Mrs Leach refers to as “the genius of the Christian ethic”, the acceptance of being a burden, a part of the reality of being human.
A better understanding of where true dignity is to be found might help society to moderate its support for assisted dying. Dignity is often expressed as the equivalence of individual autonomy, the supposedly positive right of individuals to make their own choices. But we are all a part of the body of Christ — no man is an island: the concept of autonomous choice is a logical nonsense. There is no decision to end a life which does not make an impact on others, usually well beyond the circle of those who may have been involved in the decision.
We stand at an ethical crossroads. Now is the time to offer society an alternative way of thinking about both dignity and autonomy. With the Second Reading of an Assisted Dying Bill before the House of Commons on 11 September, we need to act quickly.
Group Chief Executive
St Giles Hospice
Lichfield WS14 9LH