At long last, Richard Horton, editor-in-chief of The Lancet, appears to have made up his mind about “assisted dying” in the United Kingdom, a few days before Parliament votes on a private member’s bill this week.  

As he pointed out in the Comment section of his journal, “Careful readers of The Lancet may have noticed that we have had little to say about assisted dying (or physician-assisted suicide) in recent years. Moral cowardice? Perhaps more that we couldn’t easily make our minds up.”

Dr Horton’s article is not a ringing endorsement of the bill. But in his carefully worded assessment of its safeguards he rings no alarm bells and he underscores his perception that there is a “growing consensus” on the issue.

Altogether, it is a world away from his position in 2006. Back then, commenting on another assisted dying bill, he wrote: “A commitment to life may present troubling dilemmas to the modern physician; but a commitment to death will undermine the very nature of doctoring itself.”

Editors are free to change their minds without explaining why. Unhappily, this is not a courtesy that Dr Horton has extended to Baroness Ilora Finlay, whom he describes as “the most high-profile campaigner against assisted dying” in the UK. Baroness Finlay is the immediate past president of the British Medical Association and a leading palliative care physician. She obviously knows more than most of us about death and dying. Possibly more than the editor of The Lancet.

Yet Dr Horton slyly suggests that the real reason why she opposes assisted dying is her religious beliefs. “Some of those resisting changes to the law do so by deliberately using speculative and misleading arguments—‘fibbing for God’,” he writes.

Funny about that. In her eloquent essay against assisted dying in The Economist earlier this year, Baroness Finlay put forward powerful arguments. I have no idea what her religious beliefs are, but they weren’t needed to make her case.

If the sharpest arrow in Dr Horton’s quiver is to insinuate that his opponents are insincere and tainted by a faith which he does not share, his others must be blunt indeed. Personally, I can’t understand this prurient interest in people’s religious lives. Arguments stand or fall on their merits, not on conjectural links to extramural activities. One might as well attribute Sartre’s atheism to his chain-smoking or Berkeley’s idealism to his chronic constipation. But if you handed these famous philosophers nicotine patches and laxatives, I doubt whether they would alter their arguments.

The idea that religious convictions invalidate arguments based on evidence and reason has several problems.

One, it is a slur on the character of people like Baroness Finlay. To assert that she is deliberately advancing an argument in which she does not believe in order to enforce a policy with which she does agree means that she is thoroughly dishonest. Could a creature of such low morals really become president of the BMA? A canard like this is simply not credible.

Second, it is a slur on her readers who, it is assumed, are too stupid to recognise the bait-and-switch.

Third, there is no such thing as a policy without a cultural foundation, whether it be Christianity or atheism. Christians believe in the supreme value of life. Atheists believe in the meaninglessness of life. Both philosophies influence a discussion of assisted dying.

Fourth, in any case, the mantra of the assisted dying movement, “my life, my death, my choice”, is not based on evidence and reason. It is chanted by ideologues whose faith in radical autonomy is more religious than rational. We did not bring ourselves into life; we have not maintained ourselves in life; and whether we may choose death regardless of the common good is debatable.

Fifth, the idea that Christians should retire from public life precisely because they are Christians is absurd. If everyone with convictions were to be disenfranchised, the British electorate would shrink to almost nothing. Only three categories of voters would remain: the brain-dead, the psychopaths, and video-gamers role-playing the first two. 

Dismissing arguments because their authors are religious is basically a grown-up version of playground name-calling. The debate over assisted dying is too serious for that. Let’s stick to reason and evidence.

Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet. 

Michael Cook

Michael Cook is the editor of MercatorNet.