George Austin

One of the best reads each week in the Sunday Times is the article by John Humphrys, the BBC Today programme’s welcome scourge of devious politicians. In some ways it is like the best of Thought for the Day on that programme, often saying in effect ‘You know the usual argument, but what about this? Think about it.’ And I like to be made to think.

In a recent piece he wrote of his father who had died the previous Sunday at the age of 91. He had been a tough character, ‘difficult and argumentative’, with poor eyesight but a skilled craftsman running his own business. In his latter years after the death of his wife, he had changed, had taken to the bottle and eventually suffered from dementia. It was a terrible end and all he wanted was to die.

Humphrys ended with words from his father’s consultant: ‘A generation ago he would have been allowed to die without enduring so much indignity and suffering. Increasingly we keep people alive because we can.’ His own comment on this sums up the case: ‘That is not right. We need to regain the sense that death is not something we should apologize for. I mourn my father’s passing but I celebrate his life. And his death.’

It produced, as he wrote a few weeks later, the largest response to anything he had ever written in 45 years as a journalist, revealing ‘a depth of worry, anxiety and fear’ on the part of children, grandchildren, brothers and sisters who had been ‘forced to watch their loved ones suffer’.

I know what he means. Just a week after my parent’s silver wedding my mother was diagnosed with a brain tumour and she died eight months later in April 1955, a few weeks before I was ordained. But she died at home and she died peacefully, because her doctor employed a practice Humphrys describes as ‘double effect’, where the dose of morphine is increased ‘to alleviate pain and keep increasing it to the point where they know the patient will die’.

He points out that still today this ‘happens in hospices with cancer patients routinely.’ I believe that this is right and moral and that it is not euthanasia in the usual meaning of that word, for relief of pain is the first purpose rather than the real intention. But he goes on to say that ‘the pro-life view is that the prohibition on killing is at the centre of morality’, quoting Lord Acton: ‘Dying is not only a personal or an individual matter … the interests of society cannot be separated from the interests of society as a whole.’ That argument, Humphrys suggests, is ‘profoundly wrong’.

I do not agree, for the interests of society and of the individual do require that power should not be granted that might be misused by those who may have other agendas. One only need look at the outworking of the Abortion Act of 1967 to see how this rapidly became in effect abortion on demand. If euthanasia was permitted in certain circumstances, there is little doubt that it would give power quite beyond the relief of suffering. Allowing Auntie to die to relieve her terrible suffering is one thing; hastening her end in order to rid oneself of an inconvenience or to inherit her wealth is quite another. And that is not easy to distinguish in law or for that matter in practice.

The moral position was surely put most succinctly by Arthur Hugh Clough writing in the mid-nineteenth century: ‘Thou shalt not kill; but need not strive officiously to keep alive.’ And that I believe is the problem behind the suffering of so many of John Humphry’s correspondents.

I know that the experience of my mother’s death nearly 50 years ago was very different from the more recent death of a friend’s father. He was a widower, apparently very healthy and fit, but suddenly began to show signs of heart problems as well as suffering a series of minor strokes.

His heart condition worsened and it was clear that the end was near. He could have been allowed to die peacefully at home but instead he had three long distressing months of suffering, simply because his doctor felt he could be given a little longer, as if death was an enemy to be avoided as long as possible. I am sure the doctor was in her own mind being humane, as were the staff at his hospital.

His daughter went to visit one day, only to find his bed empty – not because he had died but because the consultant shared his doctor’s attitude and had sent him off to another hospital for angioplasty, where facilities for cardiac treatment were greater. However, the cardiologist there refused to do this because it would be inflicting more distress on the patient where there was no hope of anything but a very temporary respite from his inevitable death.

He was returned to his original hospital, where it turned nasty – and I mean nasty. Our friend was summoned to a meeting with the consultant, a senior nurse, a psychiatrist and a social worker, and it quickly became clear that the purpose was to free his bed by the simply trick of making her feel guilty.

All the comments and question were loaded in this direction and in the end the psychiatrist challenged her directly: ‘Can you not give up your job to look after your father?’ She did not add ‘Just what sort of a terrible person are you?’ but that was the clear implication. The daughter had a very senior and responsible job from which she was now being asked to resign. Quite apart from the sheer unpleasant impertinence of the suggestion, especially when he would only have weeks to live anyway, he required 24-hour care of a professional quality that our friend could not possibly give.

The fruitless attempts to give him a few more weeks of life – life without dignity – had failed and it seemed that they wanted to wash their hands of him.

No, we dare not as a society risk the legalization of euthanasia. But in spite of the secularization of that society with death becoming the ultimate end and the final enemy to be delayed at whatever cost to dignity and quality of life, we must somehow return to Clough’s axiom and accept that it as wrong to kill as it is ‘to strive officiously to keep alive’.

I believe that to be the correct principle in Christian moral theology. But is not easy to get it just right in practice.

George Austin is a writer and broadcaster