Early this past month, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey voiced support for legislation allowing assisted suicide in the United Kingdom. After serious soul searching, he concluded that “The old philosophical certainties have collapsed in the face of the reality of needless suffering.” Going further than saying assisted suicide may be a necessary evil, Carey went on to say that it is totally in step with the nature of the Gospel “One of the key themes of the gospels is love for our fellow human beings … Today we face a terrible paradox. In strictly observing accepted teaching about the sanctity of life, the church could actually be sanctioning anguish and pain – the very opposite of the Christian message.”
The alleviation of suffering is the reason proponents of assisted suicide and euthanasia claim to be in favor of the types of legislation currently being debated in the UK. They are defending not only the right to die, but the right to die when one chooses. To speak of this in terms of rights subsumes euthanasia and assisted suicide in the camp of social justice. The proponents believe that to deny someone the choice to end their own life is to say that a fundamental human right is being denied them. To deny rights is to deny what human beings are owed, and to give what is owed is broadly speaking what the business of justice is. But is the right to die truly a right? And does legislation of this kind actually commit an even greater injustice by violating the fundamental dignity of the human person? And is legislation of this kind that purports to “end suffering” really compatible with Christian belief?
The proponents of this legislation might argue that they are only fighting narrowly for the right to die when the suffering is needless and in the care of the physician. Those caveats seem quite arbitrary; how are we to say when suffering is needless? What if someone is born with a physical deformity? Chronic pain? In these debates the example is always someone bed ridden, having a lived a full life but now in a state of agony and pain. But why does that person have the right to die and not the person who is, say, chronically depressed or a paraplegic? Or physically deformed? All of these cause suffering and can be alleviated to some degree, but do they still have the right, if they so choose, to kill themselves?
Additionally, proponents of the “right to die” should be even more disturbed by the idea that only a doctor can carry this out. If dying is truly a right, a right that precedes the state and is always available to human beings no matter what, then why should that right be contingent? It would be akin to the right to freedom of the press only if some expert is allowed to oversee the process. The champions of rights would surely deny this! Then if the right to die is truly a right, then any human being should be able to take avail of it at any point at any time. Belgian lawmakers have followed through on the terrifying logic of this by expanding the right to die even to terminally ill children despite the fact that children are legally incapable of giving consent.
Not only is the right to die incoherent or monstrous if applied rigorously, such legislation actually commits an even greater injustice by allow an avenue to pressure those with chronic illnesses and pain to end their own lives. With the knowledge that all the hospital visits and bills could be ended by a simple choice just to get on with it already, would family members pressure their loved ones to end their own life? What about the parent of a child who has a debilitating illness that will wrack up debt? Implicit in the right to die is you are selfish if you persist in living with suffering and illness that will only burden your family. If you have a way out that will unburden the ones you love, why not take it? Why not just slough off so that the rest of us “normals” can enjoy life unlike you, you poor wretch? Defending the chronically and terminally ill, surely a part of “the least of these,” from this pressure surely falls under the category of social justice.
Also, from a theological perspective, to suggest that assisted suicide is compatible with Christianity is truly scandalous. If saying with straight face that God incarnate died and suffered a literally excruciating death in order to save mankind was needless and pointless is not a blasphemy, I don’t know what is. To miss this is to miss the crucial message of Christianity, that suffering is not banished in this life but redeemed and transformed. To say otherwise is to say that those that experience the least amount of pain are truly blessed and holy. It turns the Gospel into a nightmarish prosperity “gospel” where instead of material wealth the test if God really loves someone is if they don’t experience any pain. Contrary to the Gospel, suicide is seen as mercy, since suffering is pointless.
For a Christian, suffering is never pointless, but merely the fertile soil of redemption and salvation. The Church and her leaders must minister to those approaching death and in pain in order to reveal God in the midst of that suffering. Under no circumstances can we encourage suicide as the “compassionate” means to ending pain and we must protect the suffering from those who would bully them into oblivion.Google+