Listening on Assisted Dying

Like many atheists my stance on assisted dying has been favourable. I also advocated philosophies that defended suicide as a sometimes noble and dignified choice. However, at some point I considered counterpoints. My opinions were evolving before I read Jennifer Michael Hecht wonderful Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, which I reviewed on this blog. Another blog by a friend made me reconsider euthanasia. My views have not wholly reversed, but they have changed. The current British laws are undoubtedly cruel, forcing relatives into difficult decisions with uncertain legal consequences. It is not right people already anguished must be further burdened. I doubt anybody conscientiously involved in matters of sickness, dying and disability want the status quo of neglect, social cruelty and uncertain laws—although this norm feeds anxieties about the background of new laws.

The debate about Lord Falconer’s assisted dying bill has reignited the issue for the British public. Even though the bill is tamer and less applicable than widely imagined. Assisted dying has got unlikely support from Ex-Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey. And public opinion is weighted in favour of change, although I consider such a reductive gauge of opinion inadequate on a topic with as many subtleties. Those speaking against include the BMA (British Medical Association), the Church of England and disability activists apprehensive about what will happen in a Britain already unsympathetic to their plight. It is worth noting those in favour also include HPAD (The Healthcare Professionals for Assisted Dying) lead by Raymond Tallis, a philosopher I respect and a physician whose arguments in favour of change are considered, reasonable, informed by pertinent experience as well as theory and persuasive.

The informed and delicate debates must be contrasted with the quality of second-hand public quarrels, fuelled by politicians and celebrities. As someone with a chronic illness that may worsen I hope society is sufficiently mature to engage opinion and consider pitfalls when approaching medical ethics. Especially in a political, economic and cultural climate that gives a low priority to helping people live, but is obsessed to help them die. So far I fail to see evidence of maturity. Instead I witness this issue bandied as a pretext for anti-religious point scoring; bypassing qualms about doctor involvement or coercive pressures placed on the dying. Some wrongly invoke the slippery slope fallacy against critics of assisted dying; ignorant that this is only a fallacy if it is a non sequitur. A minority even argue it’s selfish for the seriously ill to keep living. An anaemic society that expects a sufferer to resort to suicide is not reality, but I worry it’s becoming our dystopian trajectory. In truth we have a society deficient in compassion and laws must be made within and for that unfortunate context.

Religious arguments (any argument) should not be accepted carte blanche. And on some subjects (i.e. sexuality) there are reasons for suspicion if not hostility. However, on palliative care, the ethics of dying and disability, the CoE cannot be reasonably excluded. And the attempt smothers nuance and moderation, framing the subject as black and white. For example, when Bishop John Inge wrote for the Guardian drawing on experiences with his dying wife and work in palliative care, eschewing religious objections to confine himself to secular anxieties, comments dismissed him as a worshiper of sky fairies . Too many fellow atheists shore up a broad ideological orthodoxy and stifle dissent. The discussion is not one in which we ought to exclude the religious simply because they are religious.

Moreover, it is not one in which we ought to exclude religious arguments per se. The original theorists of liberalism like Locke were indebted to theology. Our understanding of personhood is indebted to Augustine. Modern universalism (be it liberal, communist or conservative) has a Pauline pedigree. Historically religious beliefs about what we are and our place in an often-hostile world have clearly informed ethics. To flippantly jettison traditions is to impoverish our collective decisions. It’s true people advocating change—especially suffering or personally close to suffering—ought to be given respectful heed, but so should other voices. All involved need a public forum and a public willing to listen.

The CoE wants a Royal Commission. I appreciate some find delay too cruel, but I also believe religious and secular objectors are not unreasonably advocating business as usual. They are trying to find better reforms. Perhaps a sober appraisal could bridge the polarised positions and meet a diversity of conflicting needs. Although there may be no compromise, which is more reason for patience. Sadly it will inevitably all conclude with a vote in the ivory tower of the so-called Commons. Not now, not this time, but eventually. And without an attempt to engage people in a calm setting it will leave many dissatisfied, unheard and cynical about how our society makes these judgements.

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