The campaign to legalize euthanasia is driven by a lack of respect for the sanctity of human life, writes Janet Backman
When I was at university, I avoided abortion like the plague. Perhaps I should rephrase that: I avoided campaigns about abortion like the plague. Its not that I didn’t have strong feelings about it: I held (and continue to hold) to the teaching of the Church that the life of an unborn child is sacred. It was just that the combination of an explosive issue like abortion with the febrile and excitable atmosphere of student politics felt to me like an unhappy one. It seemed that genuine debate was impossible, since the ground was occupied by swivel-eyed loons at the very extremes of each side of the argument. And so I kept clear.
The ethics of ‘I’
If that seems to be overstating the case, then it is intentionally so, because I have had something of a conversion experience in recent years and months as the campaign for assisted suicide (or `murder’ as we might also like to call it) has gained pace and credibility. All of a sudden, the anger and the outrage and the urgency which I found so off-putting in many of the pro-life campaigners at university seemed a whole lot more understandable to me. Because the case for legalized euthanasia (`homicide’?) seems to me to be based on precisely the same lack of respect for (even comprehension of) the sanctity of human life as that which drives abortion on demand.
I have seen it argued that assisted suicide is the ultimate expression of free-market capitalism. That analysis is not far from the truth, though personally I would wish to avoid the implications of class warfare and party political politics that the word `capitalism’ would seem to imply. I would suggest instead that euthanasia is the apogee of the Ethics of I; about which I wrote previously (ND, April). The Ethics of `I’ subordinates any sense of given-ness in doctrine or ethics to my absolute right to have and do whatever I want whenever I want to have or do it. And so just as the right of a woman to choose is deemed to trump the rights of an unborn child to life in the pro-choice abortion stance, so according to the pro-euthanasia argument, my right to end my life trumps any other considerations — and so I should be given all the help and support I need to achieve this end.
Drawn into sin
The Church accepts that committing or attempting to commit suicide is in itself evidence of an unbalanced mind, and so no longer views suicide as sinful. (Perhaps for similar reasons, the state no longer views suicide as a criminal act.) Yet the same thing cannot be claimed of a conspiracy to end a life. A death that is coolly and calmly calculated, plotted, and planned, must be a rational choice. To participate in it would therefore draw all those involved into sin. More generally, it would hasten the lack of respect for human life and dignity to which society is increasingly succumbing, and which (for example) the hospice movement does so much to counter.
I do accept that there are grey areas here — just as there are (for me) grey areas around extreme and unusual cases for abortion. Quite where the medical commitment to `do no harm’ ceases to be passive and becomes active will sometimes be less than abundantly clear — and the law has in recent years shown compassion in extreme cases where actions rooted in that uncertainty have become public.
But the law must remain as it is, however much at times those enforcing the law need to show compassion and mercy. Jesus himself always showed compassion and mercy, but was equally clear about the need to go and sin no more. To change the law to allow assisted dying would be to iron out the folds of uncertainty which moral and ethical action occasionally requires. It would also open the floodgates to further change: who knows where we would be in 20 or 30 years’ time? Those who think that that is alarmist should consider the fact that the law governing abortion in this country is still technically that of the 1967 Abortion Act, which was considered liberal at the time of its passing, but has long since been de facto superseded by an even more liberal interpretation in practice. Who can really doubt that if euthanasia were legalized today, albeit with strict safeguards and hemmed in by fierce statutory controls, then in 30 years’ time doctors would be signing off the required paperwork without even meeting the person concerned — just as is happening now with abortion, despite the demands of the law?
Were this to happen — and I believe that it certainly would — then the Ethics of `I’ would reach new and even more disturbing heights, by blurring the boundaries about who `I’ refers to. No doubt any legislation passed today would make it clear that I have the right to choose to die and to be helped in so doing. But once again, who can really doubt that in a few decades’ time, journalists would start to uncover cases of `I’ deciding that it really would be best all round if Aunty Mabel was put out of her misery, and making that decision both for myself and for Aunty Mabel? For surely (in such a world view) my right to determine what is best for Mabel and for me trumps all other considerations. And of course in this scenario, Mabel is too weak and insignificant for her voice to be heard.
It must not be so. Human life is sacred. The Church has a duty to constantly remind society of that fact, and to call our legislators to account when they let the Ethics of `I’ triumph over that which is given to us by God, and for which we will have to make account to him when our own time comes. ND