On Being Human: Distinctiveness, dignity, disability and disposal
Michael N. Marsh
Iff Books £15.99
Church Times Bookshop £14.40
ON RETIREMENT from work as a consultant doctor and researcher in gastroenterology, Michael Marsh did a doctorate in theology. This he turned into his first book, Out-of-Body and Near-Death Experiences (Books, 11 February 2011), which robustly dismissed near-death experiences as reliable intimations of life beyond death. He is a person of strong scientific and theological convictions, who clearly delights in challenging theologians and philosophers who lack his scientific training.
We do need someone like him to do just that, even if he is given to a deal of caricature. At one point in his new book, he dismisses an argument that he dislikes as emanating “from the smoke-filled, wood-panelled rooms of philosophy departments”, and all too often he deploys exclamation marks. He could have done with a firmer copy-editor. The latter might also have modified his repetitions (which his introduction admits) and corrected some of his slips, for example the date he gives for the origin of Homo sapiens, “c.200,000 million years ago”.
Yet, despite the caricatures and slips, he does make some interesting and independent points. He is strongly committed to an Eastern Orthodox belief in humans’ becoming, through baptism, “divinised in the Godhead”, but has little time for the Western belief that humans are created “in the image of God”. He regards the latter as paradoxically both a vague theological concept and a conversation-stopper when deployed to counter abortion or assisted dying. For the most part, he also avoids the term “personhood”, preferring “human”.
This leads him to a conservative position on the legitimacy of abortion — considering conception as the “sacred” moment when we become “human”. Yet he glosses over the fact that most conceptions in nature do not result in a birth; so, on this account, most humans throughout history have never been born. Again, he argues strongly that legal abortions should be drastically reduced in Britain, despite fears that this would result in a return to septic illegal abortions.
Quaintly, it also leads him to a liberal position on assisted dying: “I regard a pregnancy as a sacred event, while there are theological grounds for allowing the disposal of an end-stage body, provided the criteria are correct.” So he has few problems about withdrawing nutrition and hydration from those with no cortical activity — making the sharp observation that, after withdrawal, Tony Bland died very quickly compared with IRA hunger-strikers. Unlike a majority of other doctors, he also favours the helping of terminal patients in great pain to die, albeit with much stronger legal safeguards than Lord Falconer proposed.
His chapter on disability is more conventional, and makes good use of the late John Hull, Frances Young, and Marilyn McCord Adams. A lifetime working as a doctor has convinced him that the severely disabled and the suffering “do require tenderness, love, compassion, time-spent, and empathy towards those so mightily burdened, especially when that hurt can never be assuaged during [this] life”.
Canon Robin Gill is the editor of Theology and Emeritus Professor of Applied Theology at the University of Kent.