Lord Carey is wrong (and not for the first time)

The ability of Lord Carey to dominate the headlines during the synod of the Church of England is something that is a wonder of modern ecclesiastical communications. If I were working in the communications machine of the C of E, I’d despair of the former archbishop’s ability to step into the limelight just when one would be trying to get some kind of coherent message across.

Lord Carey makes me feel sympathy for the Church of England, its synod and its communication team. Such is his impact. He is not to be underestimated.

So, what are we to make of his statement that he is now in favour of Assisted Suicide, having been against it previously?

I’ve not written much about this topic. It is a sensitive one and one which divides people in unpredictable ways. Working in the church, you kind of get used to the way we divide on many issues. (Those who are most antagonistic to women clergy are often the most antagonistic to gay men living lives of openness etc). However in this case, I think that we divide differently and unpredictably.

I’m not persuaded by Lord Carey’s argument and don’t favour any change to the law.

I’m familiar with the argument that we must do all we can to eliminate suffering and that sometimes life has just become intolerable. I have every sympathy with those who have seen someone die in pain and distress and would do anything to have made it easier. Of course I would.

But I am also aware that people don’t die in a neat predictable way. Nor do they die isolated from the values and needs of those who are left behind. The relationship between those whose life is coming to an end is inevitably bound up with the lives of those who seek to care for them and those who perhaps should care for them but who don’t find themselves able to do so.

Offering the choice to die inevitably puts new burdens on those who are dying as well as on those who are around them. I’m unpersuaded at this time that it is in the best interests of society as a whole for the moral right of one individual within that complex of relationships to automatically trump every other consideration.

Now that’s a hard position for me to take because of two things. Firstly, I believe that we should seek to relieve suffering and act to reduce pain. I don’t believe that there is anything good about pain and unlike many religious people I think that it has no redemptive quality at all. Secondly because I think we need to give as much autonomy to the individual as we can.

How can I come to the view that I do then that Lord Carey is wrong?

Well, it isn’t just the dying person who suffers pain at the time of a death.  Nor is all pain caused by purely physical causes. I’m simply unpersuaded on pragmatic grounds that allowing Assisted Suicide will lead to an overall reduction in pain to humanity. Secondly, I don’t believe that a patient has absolute autonomy if there is an economic or emotional factor in their dying that can benefit others. When people die these things are all around.

My objection to Assisted Suicide is not a particularly religious one. At least I don’t think so.

The only religious reason that I can think of which supports my position is that I think it is incumbent on the Christian to care for the vulnerable. The dying are incredibly vulnerable. They are vulnerable to those who would like them to get on with it. Those can be relatives but equally they can be doctors and health service managers too.

I can’t see any protections that could remove that vulnerability.

The reality is, not everyone dies in a middle class way with articulate, caring people around them who stand to gain nothing from their death.

For these practical, emotional and probably inconsistent reasons, I can’t support a change in the law.

Though I know many good people who will agree with him, I have to admit that, not for the first time, I think Lord Carey is wrong.

Assisted Suicide

You know, I find myself increasingly uneasy with the way that assisted suicide legal cases are being reported in the press. The tone of some of the reporting of Debbie Purdy’s legal case this week was triumphalist and as though she was some kind of freedom fighter. Whilst I do think that she has the right to know whether actions that she encourages her husband to take will lead to prosecution, I don’t think that making it easier for him to help her will necessarily lead to a greater moral good for society.

Ah, people say, but wouldn’t you want to make choices of your own if your life was so terrible, so desperate, so intolerable?

Well, that question does not trump the law and it does not trump the need to build a society in which those who are most vulnerable are most protected from harmful actions and harmful influence. Whilst I might be able to understand anyone making choices in dire circumstances, the thing I don’t want to do is live in a society which says that some lives are not worth living.

There are huge human rights issues here which are not getting picked up in the press much these days. Whenever a new legal “victory” is won by those seeking to extend the law, campaigners ask for more. The recent joint suicide of Joan Downes and Sir Edward Downes was portrayed almost as a love story in the media yet the ballyhoo did not give us much chance to reflect on the fact that one of them was not terminally ill at all. The deaths (killings?) of a composer and his wife represent a much more complex moral question than a simple love story and it is in moral complexity of that sort that all kinds of injustices for those who are most vulnerable are waiting to take us unawares.

Now, how do we get such positive coverage for those doing research into pain relief and those who need yet to campaign for better end of life care within the society we have? Diminishing pain seems to me to be unquestionably a moral good. Assisted suicide seems to me much more difficult to affirm. It is a far from satisfactory answer to what is often not right at the end of people’s lives