The Sanctity of Human Life

We thought it might be good to initiate discussion on ethical issues from time to time and so I am starting this off with some thoughts on what has become known as Assisted Dying. A Christian approach to this subject must begin from our belief that all life in some way or other ultimately derives from the work of God in creation. For those of us who are quite happy to embrace a Darwinian approach in terms of natural selection as to how this actually came about, we nonetheless understand that God is the unmoved mover and the mind behind the creation of the universe. A scientific explanation of creation tells us how this took place, but a theological explanation tries to account for why it happened and to supply us with some overarching meaning and purpose behind these events. This kind of explanation sees creation as the product of God’s unconditional love and his desire to share that love with others, because quite simply, love is only truly love when it is shared with others and when those others are fully given their free-will and independence. Christians also believe that human beings are made in the image and likeness of God and consequently, human life is sacred partly because it is ultimately a gift from God and partly because of that image of God within us, which is represented by our conscience, by our desire to do the right thing and by our wish to help others. This image may have become tarnished by our own selfishness from time to time but it still remains an important part of us.

So when we come to think about those who are very seriously ill or those in a vegetative state or simply the very frail and elderly, we must bear all these considerations in mind. First of all, it is entirely reasonable not to strive to keep alive by artificial means those who would otherwise die or have a really poor quality of life, including those kept alive by machines. Withdrawing medication in these circumstances is quite reasonable. All of this can be achieved within the existing framework of law and guidance. We also need to remember that Britain is a world leader in palliative care, often delivered in the caring atmosphere of a hospice, which can make all the difference to those last few days or weeks of life for those who are terminally ill. However, some would like to go further than this and alter the law to allow an individual to assist someone in bringing about their own death in certain limited circumstances.

First of all, I think this would bring about a very undesirable change in our culture, whereby preserving life would no longer be the automatic presumption in all circumstances and I think this would undermine our reactions when we are faced by acute crises and dangers. Secondly, I think it would place doctors in an impossible situation. Their whole vocation is based on saving life, not on becoming arbiters of the time of death. Finally, I think, however good the intentions, the elderly would feel pressured to die rather than become both an emotional and a financial drain on their families and it could open the way to unscrupulous heirs pushing their relatives towards assisted dying simply for material gain. I do not believe that any law can be drafted to set older people free from all psychological pressure and safeguard them against all these potential abuses. However, I do recognize that a minority of people do find themselves in situations of intolerable suffering, and everything must be done to alleviate that suffering, but I still hold to the principle that bad cases do not make for good laws. We should also recognize that extreme situations have sometimes given rise to great triumphs of the human spirit in the face of such suffering and in the end no law can enable us to escape from all pain and anguish. Faith can make a real difference even in extreme illness, especially in strengthening the sick person and enabling them to confront and accept a situation that they cannot change, and ultimately it can bring them a greater peace of mind.

However, I realize that not everyone will agree with my thoughts on this difficult subject, and other Christians do hold different views about this.