Monday, 20 October 2008

assisted suicide - a relative issue?

As a curate I played rugby for an old boys club. Each Saturday a converted van would draw up beside the pitch and the back would be opened. Inside sat a young man in a wheelchair, paralysed from the shoulders down and dependent on his full time carers to assist with his needs. This young man had broken his neck in the scrum while playing for the old boys and could only watch from his chair the game he had loved to play. The club did all they could to help him along with family and friends but not surprisingly occasionally the young man had severe bouts of depression.

The young man mentioned above came to mind as I heard the news reports of the assisted suicide of Daniel James the 23 year old paralysed rugby player. Daniel was taken to a Swiss euthanasia clinic in order to fulfil his stated desire to die. I can’t imagine what Daniel went through in the time following his accident, nor the pain and turmoil experienced by his loving parents, which led to the decision to end his life. I pray for them as they seek to live with the choices they have made.

However, I was surprised to read an article in The Observer last Sunday by Mary Warnock entitled Legalise Assisted Suicide, For Pity’s Sake. The first part of the article was a consideration of the legal implications of the James’ case and was a fairly straightforward rehearsal of the issues. And then came this statement:
But the more crucial argument is this: we have a moral obligation to take other people's seriously reached decisions with regard to their own lives equally seriously, not putting our judgment of the value of their life above theirs. Mr and Mrs James have sadly and dramatically carried out this moral obligation.

Why is it a moral obligation? What is the ethical framework within which Warnock expresses this obligation? Warnock’s argument is the ultimate retreat to relativism – there is no objective moral framework simply the belief that each person should be free to decide what’s best for them. I say belief but it seems to me to be nothing more than an assertion. No explanation is given as to the basis of this opinion and this is pretty worrying coming from someone who for so long has been involved in framing the debate and law on a wide variety of moral issues in our country.

I first studied Warnock’s approach to ethics as a student when I wrote a paper on the Warnock Report (1984). I was looking particularly at what the report had to say about surrogate motherhood but it led to a wider exploration of the methods and assumptions underlying the report’s findings and recommendations. My conclusion was that the report was characterized by a secular, utilitarian and technological world view. The report came out against surrogate motherhood but only on the grounds that there was a danger of commercial exploitation.

I shouldn’t be surprised at Warnock’s article in The Observer. This is what she said in an interview for Life and Work, the Church of Scotland Magazine.

If you're demented, you're wasting people's lives – your family's lives – and you're wasting the resources of the National Health Service.

I'm absolutely, fully in agreement with the argument that if pain is insufferable, then someone should be given help to die, but I feel there's a wider argument that if somebody absolutely, desperately wants to die because they're a burden to their family, or the state, then I think they too should be allowed to die.

So let’s be clear. The reason for supporting assisted suicide/dying is that the person is wasting other people’s lives and wasting the NHS’s resources by continuing to live. A person’s worth is measured by nothing more than this. It’s one small step from saying that people have an obligation to die when they become a burden and another short step to saying that the state has an obligation to get rid of those who have become a burden. Let’s go all the way and make Soylent Green our blue print for the future. Soylent Green is the Charlton Heston film in which people were encouraged to embrace suicide so that their bodies could be turned into food for the masses.

But there is another way of determining a person’s worth. A person’s worth is not defined by their abilities or faculties but by the truth that they are created and loved by God and precious to him and we will be held accountable by God for how we treat them.


Tim Goodbody said...

Nice one Phil - will probably give my CCS group this link when we do the next unit on ethics is Michael Wenham's blog. He has Motor Neurone Disease and is a vicar (as featured in the CT last Friday)

Philip Ritchie said...

Tim, thanks for the comment and the link to Michael Wenham's blog.

paul said...

Good comment piece, Phil.

I seem to remember citing Soylent Green in a recent sermon, talking about how we are human because we are made in the image of God and His Beloved, not because we may or not be useful...

...quite peeved, though, that few in my parish congregation had seen the film. What on earth do people do with their time?!?!...