Monday, 14 July 2014

Carey and Tutu should really know better

Over the weekend I found myself astonished by the comments of Lord Carey and Archbishop Tutu on assisted dying. 

As the Lords prefer to debate Lord Falconer's proposed assisted dying bill, these two prominent Anglicans have chosen to speak in favour of such a law, and have been widely reported as doing so. Unfortunately few people will read the actual statements which were made, and these certainly deserve further examination.

Carey started the ball rolling with his article in the Daily Mail (his original article is at the end, the first section is a review both of his comments and the Bill). He makes several points:

  • Modern medicine is capable of ending life as well as prolonging it.
  • The law (and the Church) need to catch up with reality.
  • Arguments of the slippery slope type 'lack power and authority'.
  • Benevolence and compassion are more important than doctrine: Christian theology needs reinterpreting. 
The ability to cause death is not new (see history). Carey claims that the fact that drugs such as morphine, given to ease pain, may hasten a person's death and argues that given that this may happen, we could and should use them to cause the patient's death. This is merely an extension. In fact 'modern medicine', as lauded by the former Archbishop of Canterbury himself, is capable of controlling doses so carefully that such a 'double-effect' is now negligible. He also fails to recognise that as it is the primary intention which has changed (causing death vs analgesia) this is not a mere extension of an unavoidable effect but a completely different action. First, do no harm. The former 'first' is the alleviation of pain. The latter is to actively seek to end the patient's life. 

Then we have the reflecting reality/moving with the times argument. There is only one thing to say about this: Dictatorship of Relativism. In this country we seem to like this argument. People are having abortions, let's legalise them. People want to marry others of them same sex, go for it. 

As to the lack of authority in the slippery slope argument, I present for his Lordship's inspection the same cases I cited in the previous paragraph (in reverse order). Repeal of section 28, civil partnerships, assurances of no change to marriage, change to marriage law. Slippery slope or what? The Abortion Act 1967 allowed for pregnancy to be terminated if the pregnancy presented greater risk to the mother's mental or physical health than its continuation (as judged by two medical practitioners). And yet, and yet we have doctors who were prepared to carry out sex selective abortions not being prosecuted. Clearly this is beyond the original intention of the 1967 Act.

As to the last point, I think this has already been covered by the mention of the dictatorship of relativism and the Hippocratic Oath. The ethical principle of beneficence has to go hand in hand with non-maleficence. Jesus did indeed show compassion to lepers (as Carey points out) but he did not say 'well, Mr Leper, you are clearly going to die and slow and painful death, so allow me to put you out of your misery right now'. He also didn't always do exactly what people asked him to. Neither did God decide to end Job's misery by ending his life.

Carey's article is appears full of inconsistencies and contradictions: on the one hand he commends the work of hospices, on the other he uses the lack of hospice care as further reason to support the Bill. He reviews reports of the effect of similar bill in Holland, and then casually dismisses them. And given that his change of heart was prompted by the case of Tony Nicklinson, he presumably thinks that the proposed bill doesn't go far enough, given that Nicklinson suffered locked-in syndrome for years and Lord Falconer's Bill only applies to those with less than 6 months to live. 

Archbishop Tutu, writing in the Observer, points out that 'the words euthanasia and suicide carry negative connotations'. Well yes, they do. But when we talk about 'assisted suicide' or 'assisted dying' we are still discussing the same concept. Lay off the doublespeak, and tell it like it is: we are talking about killing people! However, his main issue (although it is not clear if he himself has realised this) seems to be with the artificial prolongation of life, rather than advocating its premature end (indeed, he states that dying in old age is a privilege in Africa). He criticises the lack of dignity granted his friend Mandela in the last days of his life. And I agree with him. Political opportunism in the form of photoshoots with a man kept alive by machines have nothing to do with dignity. In his own advancing years Archbishop Emeritus Tutu does not want to be treated thus. At this point we can all, fortunately, reach for the Catechism and find that, unsurprisingly, the Church in her wisdom has already considered this point:
2278 Discontinuing medical procedures that are burdensome, dangerous, extraordinary, or disproportionate to the expected outcome can be legitimate; it is the refusal of 'over-zealous' treatment. Here one does not will to cause death; one's inability to impede it is merely accepted. The decisions should be made by the patient if he is competent and able or, if not, by those legally entitled to act for the patient, whose reasonable will and legitimate interests must always be respected.
And then we have the Bill itself. On the one hand, in healthcare we seek to prevent suicide, seeing it as something never in a person's best interest. We can even section those who threaten to harm themselves in this way. Now, we propose to legalise it. And I, for one, having been on the other end of mental illness, am glad that we do. I am glad that everyone was clear, myself, the people around me, the healthcare professionals who supported me (psychiatrists, psychologists and GPs), were all clear that a thought of suicide was not a normal or natural thought, a thought that the world would be better without me in it, a thought life was not worth living, that these thoughts were a product of illness, not a fruit of my will. How long will it be before those who have seven months to live declaim their right to die. What of those frail octa- and nonagenarians who might be expected to just drift off in their sleep at any time, simply from having been alive for so many years, without being acutely and specifically dying, are they being denied their rights? How long before those with mental illnesses which  cause suffering and anguish and require intensive care decide that they too want the right to die? What of the fact that predicting death is an extremely imprecise science even for experts. And since when was death a private act anyway?

But even this is not  the whole of the point. Life is indeed sacred, and that should be enough. But, thought the incarnation, passion, death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus, suffering and pain have a redemptive quality, uniting us with Christ in his passion, giving us the opportunity draw closer to him and experience his closeness to us. And, furthermore, giving both patient and carers the opportunity to grow in love. Please, don't deny us this opportunity.

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