“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” John Donne
The surprising u-turn by the former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey contributed to an extensive debate on assisted dying in the media this week. Today the House of Lords is debating Lord Falconer’s bill on this topic. Should assisted dying be legalised, it would cause five relational fissures to weaken society:
1. The relationship between words and meaning: ‘assisted dying’ is what happens daily when thousands of relatives and people in caring professions help make the last weeks of a person’s life as comfortable as possible, not just physically but emotionally and relationally too. This debate is not about assisted dying, but assisted suicide.
2. The relationship between doctors and their patients: assisted suicide that requires doctors to prescribe lethal doses of drugs would force them to break the Hippocratic Oath and turn their ethics – and relationship with patients – upside down. If medics are given legal powers to take life not just save life, the ground rules of the doctor-patient relationship will be forever altered.
3. The relationship between old people and their relatives/carers: thousands of old people are abused every year as it is; this law would leave frail people vulnerable to the notion that they have become too much of a burden to others. To allow the option of ‘sparing’ their carers and family by requesting assisted suicide would place a huge moral dilemma on many of them.
4. The relationship between vulnerable people and wider society: even though this change of law is intended for just a small number of cases, it would normalise assisted suicide and make it socially acceptable. It would then be just a matter of time until assisted suicide is not just permitted but expected – and thus increase the sense of isolation and rejection felt by old people.
5. Lastly, the relationship between the financial industry and law makers: lurking in the shadows in this debate is the substantial economic benefit to the insurance and pension industries (both government and private) should it be possible to hasten the death of the sick and elderly. Legalising assisted suicide would prise open the door to economic factors to influence future debates in parliament and the courts on euthanasia.
The arguments for assisted suicide are about increasing individual choice – but should this trump all else? Any change in the law of the land must consider all who would be affected by it – everyone who is implicated relationally or caught up in the unintended consequences.
George Carey’s views can be read here, and a considered response by Ian Paul here. Alternatively, you might like to watch a summary of the Westminster Faith Debate on this very issue here.
Walk the talk:
Dying well is much more than a pain-free death – it includes the relational elements of saying thank you, sorry, and I love you. Have you thought through what dying well would constitute for you?
The last word:
From the Bible, Genesis 25 verse 8: “Then Abraham breathed his last and died at a good old age, an old man and full of years; and he was gathered to his people.”