(Wellington College, January 30 2014)

In early August an alliance of English religious clergy wrote to the Daily Telegraph in support of assisted suicide legislation. Austen Ivereigh responds:

The letter from religious figures in favour of assisted suicide in Saturday’s Telegraph  —  among them the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Carey — presents a curious theological argument. “There is nothing sacred about suffering, nothing holy about agony, and individuals should not be obliged to endure it”, say the signatories, who add that helping terminally ill people to commit suicide should be viewed simply as enabling them to “gracefully hand back” their lives to God.

The first curiosity is their perception that religious bodies in the UK overwhelmingly oppose assisted suicide because they believe God wants people to suffer. Who says this? Not the Catholic or Anglican Churches, that’s for sure; they have constantly pointed out the need for more and more effective palliative care and hospice beds, precisely in order to not just relieve physical pain, but also provide loving care and support to those in their final journey. This is not something that the churches have merely talked about, but put into action: the network of hospices across the UK are the fruit of great energy and resources dedicated to the proposition that “last days are not lost days” (as Dame Cicely Saunders used to put it).

Indeed, the bishops’ point has consistently been that an assisted suicide would rapidly dissolve any support for this idea, by introducing the notion that a life which includes pain and suffering is less worthy of being lived, and of being protected.

The second curiosity is the attempt to create a theological justification for assisted suicide in defiance of the long-settled teachings of the Christian tradition (as well as other faiths). As the Catholic bishops of England and Wales put it:

the lack of health or the fact of one’s disability are never valid reasons for exclusion or, and what is worse, the elimination of persons. The gravest deprivation experienced by the aged is not the weakening of one’s physical body, or the disability that may result from this. Rather, it is the abandonment, exclusion and deprivation of love.

Lord Carey et al are offering a theological fig leaf for the usual argument in favour of assisted suicide, one that rests on an ethic of autonomy: that individuals should be allowed to decide on such personal matters for themselves, and control the time of their death; that these decisions should be respected by the law; and (which is not often stated directly) that doctors should be asked to enable this. Hence next month’s bill sponsored by Labour MP Rob Marris, which would allow people thought to have no more than six months to live who have a “settled intention” to end their life, to be given a lethal dose of drugs on the authority of two doctors.

In this view, the state should not play any coercive role in personal “choices”; thus the libertarian conservative magazine The Economist, which recently expressed indignation that “although most Western governments no longer try to dictate how consenting adults have sex, the state still stands in the way of their choices about death.” Thus, too, The Sun, which gave huge publicity to the man it called “Brave Bob” who ended his life in the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland.

At the heart of all these well-rehearsed arguments is the desire — as Charles Moore points out — for control. It is not the  suffering per se that leads people to seek assisted suicide, but the horror of helplessness. An assisted suicide is the angry riposte of those who cannot face not being in control.

The handful of Anglican bishops and liberal rabbis behind the Telegraph letter try to stand this up theologically, but fail miserably. “We value life as a precious gift of God,” they say, “but also uphold the right of individuals who are approaching their last few months to gracefully hand back that gift if they feel the quality of their life is about to deteriorate beyond the point at which they want to continue.”

Hand back their lives to God? Nothing could be further from the minds of the middle-class businessmen and professors who make their way to Dignitas. Jeffrey Spector, who recently arranged his suicide there in a blaze of publicity, defied his family by insisting on the move because “I felt the illness had crossed the red line and I was getting worse …. Rather than go late I am jumping the gun”. Spector, said his family later, “did not want to live a life in which he was paralysed and reliant on his family to care for him.”

Neither Spector, nor “Brave Bob”, nor any of the other middle-class control freaks calling for assisted suicide ever make any mention of God, let alone “handing back” their lives to anyone.  Handing back and handing over is what we do when we renounce control, accept our powerlessness and (if we believe in God) trust God to take us in hand. What the assisted suicide advocates do is the opposite. It is to avoid “handing over” at all that they are arranging their own exits.

But the real scandal of the clergymen’s position is their perversion of the Gospel. As Thomas Chacko points out at Quadrapheme, in response to the autonomy argument:

If I told my friends that I wanted to die, I don’t think that they would be showing their respect for me if they then helped me kill myself. Life throws a lot of misery at us, not all of which we can bear alone. If I ever get to the stage of being unable to face it any more, I hope my friends will treat my happiness as worth fighting for even if I seem convinced of the worthlessness of my life, and even if it takes more than six months (or more than six years) for me to change my mind. If instead they encouraged me to commit suicide by telling me how much they supported my decision, I don’t think that that would show how much they respected my autonomy (though they might say that to themselves, to allay suspicions that I had simply become too difficult for them to deal with any more).

The Church’s mandate has always been understood, in Christian theology, as doing what Chacko hopes his friends would do: assisting people to endure the existential and physical suffering that is a part of dying, relieving it wherever medically possible, and where it is not possible, to offer hope and comfort, a space of reassurance which allows people to come to terms with their true condition. Dying is a renunciation.

In Lord Carey’s bizarre new theological dispensation, vicars would in future be dispatched to accompany the Jeffrey Spectors of this world to Switzerland, whispering soothingly in their ears that they are “gracefully handing back to God” as they down the fatal elixir.

Or consider the police in Telford earlier this year, who were hoping to charge the members of a crowd that urged a suicidal man to jump to his death. They obviously haven’t heard of Lord Carey’s dispensation, in which presumably the crowd would be joined by a vicar yelling: “Go on! Gracefully hand back your life to God!”

Either you urge suicide, or you urge against it. That is the choice that faces everyone who ever encounters a suicidal person. It is also the choice that the law must make. This has never been an argument about the meaning of death, or the right of individuals. It has been about what position the law should take. If it decides in favour of individual autonomy, it is urging suicide by accepting its premise — that some lives just aren’t worth living. Whether it is an individual reaching that conclusion about himself or about another makes no difference. To endorse it is to accept the idea.

The law has always shared the Christian assumption that life is a gift of God, not something we are in control of. That is the basis not just of a civilized society, but the meaning of love. Love is only possible because our God-given lives mean we are infinitely worthy, whatever our state in life; once we — with the help of the state and the medical profession — declare that this or that life is without value and can be ended, we start down the road that leads in only one direction — to the death camps and the gulags.

Assisting a suicide is a corruption of compassion and a perversion of mercy. A state that endorses it renounces the law’s duty to uphold the sacred value of life. A Christian clergyman that endorses it renounces the very heart of the Gospel itself.

Austen Ivereigh is coordinator and co-founder of Catholic Voices in the UK. This article first appeared on its website.

Dr Austen Ivereigh, coordinator and co-founder of Catholic Voices, is an author, journalist and commentator, who is a well-known voice on TV and radio on church affairs. From 2000-2004 he was deputy editor...