17 November 2023

Will assisted suicide laws ever be compatible with a Christian worldview?

Written by James Mildred

This article was first published in the Social Issues Bulletin – Issue 54: Winter 2023.

Around the UK, we’re never far away from a fresh attempt to legalise assisted suicide. In Scotland, the Scottish Liberal Democrat MSP Liam McArthur is planning on introducing his members’ bill to give certain patients a new, legal right to be helped to kill themselves. When he does, it will be considered by a lead committee, which will take evidence and produce a report. MSPs will then vote on the Bill at a Stage 1 debate. It was at this stage in 2015 that the previous assisted suicide bill in Scotland was comprehensively defeated by 82 votes to 36. With two Holyrood elections since then, and plenty of new MSPs, it’s far less clear what the outcome will be this time.

Meanwhile in the Isle of Man, representatives in the House of Keys have debated an assisted suicide bill introduced by Alex Alisson. His proposed legislation would allow terminally ill patients the right to choose either an assisted suicide – when the patient is prescribed lethal medication to kill themselves – or euthanasia – when a medical practitioner administers the patient with a lethal drug to kill them.

Politicians in Jersey are also looking at assisted suicide proposals in a consultation that may yet see the government there introduce legislation.

Lastly at Westminster, the Health and Social Care Committee has been conducting an Inquiry into the current law in England and Wales (under the current law, assisting someone to commit suicide is illegal and punishable by up to 14 years in prison). The guidance urges caution in applying a prison sentence. In this sense, the law has a stern face, but a kind heart. The committee is expected to report back in the coming months. With a King’s Speech in November, and the private members’ bill ballots in the House of Commons and House of Lords as well, there’s also the prospect of an assisted suicide bill coming high enough up one of these ballots to be given more time for debate in either House. 

Faced with all this, you can’t help but wonder what part of the UK will end up legalising assisted suicide first?

The vital role for the church to play

While CARE is responding to consultations on assisted suicide and providing support and briefings to politicians across the UK, including the Isle of Man, there is also a vital role for the church to play. Thankfully, we live in a democracy which means we can engage with our elected representatives on the issues we care about. It seems to me that assisted suicide is set to become one of the defining ethical debates of our time. At its heart, it is about how we view and respond to death and suffering and how we care best for the frailest in our society.

As followers of Jesus, contacting our politicians about assisted suicide is one of the ways we can be salt and light. In our emails, letters, and meetings with our representatives, we can be gracious, clear, compelling and compassionate. There are multiple arguments we could employ. For example, we could encourage them to consider the evidence from Canada, which offers a cautionary tale to any state looking to pass assisted suicide laws. In Canada, the law was changed in 2016 and since then, vital safeguards have already disappeared. And the change in culture has been profound as well.

One former Paralympian and army veteran in Canada wanted a stairlift put in. She contacted her local authority and they responded, not by sending an engineer to install the chairlift, but by sending her a leaflet about assisted suicide. Sadly, this story from Canada is not an isolated incident. Such arguments about public safety and the failure of safeguards, as well as the risk to the most vulnerable, are the ones most likely to influence the politicians who represent us.

Questions to think about as we engage with this topic

While you might read this and be fully convinced assisted suicide is wrong, I’m also aware you might not be so sure. Perhaps you’ve experienced the tragedy of watching a loved one suffer terribly at the end of their life. As a result, there’s an inner conflict over what to think. Perhaps the arguments employed by pressure groups like Dignity in Dying (formerly called the Voluntary Euthanasia Society) are persuasive to you, especially the idea that legalising assisted suicide is not really such a major change in the law.

If you find yourself unsure what to think, let me raise just two questions I think you should ask yourself. These are good questions for us all to think about as we engage with this emotive topic of assisted suicide.

Do you think individual freedom should always trump collective responsibility?

When it comes to assisted suicide, the argument used for it is often based on the rights of an individual. It goes like this: it’s not up to me or anyone else to decide how you die. You should have that choice yourself. Anyone who opposes assisted suicide doesn’t need to choose one. But why should we deny the rights of individuals who want an assisted suicide?

The flaw in this argument is it fails to acknowledge that human beings are not islands and there is no such thing as absolute freedom. All of us make choices that impact other people and choosing an assisted suicide would be no different. Choosing it could prompt an elderly neighbour who is depressed and lonely to contemplate the same choice, even though, deep down, what they really need is love, support, company and friendship.

Moreover, all of us accept limitations to our freedom in society. For example, there are limitations on how fast we can drive on the roads, and where we’re allowed to cycle, to mention just two. These exist to protect people from harm and to serve the common good. Evidence from around the world suggests assisted suicide laws place pressure on the most vulnerable, with the right to die becoming a duty to die. Is there any way we could absolutely ensure an assisted suicide law wasn’t abused and exploited? 

Do you think life is always sacred or only if it is free from suffering?

In the Christian worldview, there can be only one answer. Life is always seen as sacred. It is a gift from God. And he values each and every human because all are made in his image. He values life so highly that post-Flood when Noah emerged from the Ark, we have the first legal bit of text in the history of the world. God placed a death penalty on the intentional killing of another human being, which highlighted how deeply precious human life is. And the greatest evidence for the preciousness of human life? The incarnation of Jesus! God himself humbled himself and became an embryo in the womb of the Virgin Mary. The trouble with assisted suicide is it believes the lie that life is profane. That it reaches the point where it loses its value and meaning.

Assisted suicide laws will never be compatible with the Christian worldview

Personally, I do not think assisted suicide laws will ever be compatible with the Christian worldview. Our whole theology of suffering leans into the redemptive and sanctifying effect it can have on us and on others. We will not always know why we suffer. We will not be in control of how and what our loved ones go through. But our confidence rests in the promises of God, which are all yes and amen in Christ. He has promised to be with us in the storms, in the valley of the shadow of death. And he has also promised that his grace (power) is sufficient for us in all our trials.

Far from being a minor, easy change in the law, legalising assisted suicide would mean profound, irreversible culture change. It would open a Pandora’s Box, with the whole ethos of medicine and care for the most vulnerable fundamentally changed. Doctors would have the legal power to kill patients in certain circumstances. That’s a momentous shift and one we should urgently resist.

As politicians engage and debate various assisted suicide proposals in Scotland, the Isle of Man, Jersey and potentially at Westminster too, let’s pray they will be receptive to hearing our arguments and opinions and that every parliament and assembly will always – as they have done so far – say no to assisted suicide.

Written by
James Mildred
James Mildred is CARE’s Director of Communications and Engagement. He started working in politics in 2014. He moved to London to work for CARE that same year and also completed a two year church based training programme.

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