The notion of a ‘right to die’ may sound libertarian but it encourages society to abandon those who are suffering, warns Archbishop Vincent Nichols.
In an “age of convenience”, the Archbishop argues, where “individual rights” are held “above all other considerations”, we are left asking if life is just something “to be created, aborted or disposed of at will”.
He continues: “If my life has no objective value, then why should anyone else care for it?
“The notion of an absolute right to choose ‘a good death’ may sound libertarian but it undermines society’s commitment to support fellow members in adversity.
“And it encourages the abandonment of the ailing.”
The Archbishop’s article, published today in The Daily Telegraph, follows the failure last week of an attempt in the House of Lords to weaken the law on assisted suicide.
Earlier this week it was reported that a successful music conductor and his wife had become the latest Britons to end their lives at the Swiss suicide facility Dignitas.
At the heart of both stories, Archbishop Nichols says, is the “notion that we have an absolute moral entitlement to have whatever kind of death we choose”.
But he warns that once “life is entirely subject to human decision in its beginnings and endings, then the horizon of hope is dramatically reduced.
“I may hope to be the agent of that decision. But the likelihood is that someone else will either take it for me, or guide me towards taking it.”
He calls on all readers, whether or not they hold religious beliefs, to recognise “the serious ethical and social dangers to which the doctrine of unfettered personal autonomy is leading us”.
During the Lords debate on assisted suicide last week, Baroness Campbell, who suffers from the wasting disease spinal muscular atrophy, told of the “terrifying experience” of lying in a hospital bed seven years ago as doctors decided her life wasn’t worth living.
She said she was only rescued when her husband changed their minds by showing them a picture of her receiving an honorary degree.
She added: “A change in the law based on the assumption that some lives are more valuable and worthwhile than others would alter the mindset of the medical and social care professions, persuading more and more people that actually the prospect of an ‘easy’ way out is what people such as me really want.”
“A different life”
The Times has reported the story of Matt Hampson, a former rugby player who was paralysed from the neck down during training and now requires a ventilator to breathe.
With the help of carers and a custom-built house, he has been able to set up a website, is writing an autobiography and is the patron of a charity for disabled children called Special Effects.
He says: “I don’t live a bad life, I live a different life. I use my brain more than my brawn now. It has helped me become a more rounded person. I think about things more.
“I’ve had to grow up quite a bit and do things that most 23-year-olds don’t do.”
“I’m grateful I wasn’t allowed to end it all!”
Alison Davis is National Co-ordinator of No Less Human.
She was born with severe spina bifida, and is dependent on a wheelchair. She is often in extreme pain for hours at a time. She says that for many years she wanted to “end it all”.
“If euthanasia had been legal, I would certainly have requested it and I wouldn’t be here now,” she says.
But after several serious suicide attempts, blocked by the intervention of Alison’s friends, she began to change her mind.
Alison met the disabled children she had been sponsoring through a charity. The experience led her to think, for the first time in over ten years, “I think I want to live”.
She says: “I’ll always be grateful to the friends who saved my life (though I wasn’t at the time). And I’m especially thankful there was no possibility of persuading my doctors to legally help me die.”
She believes that disabled people “deserve the same kind of help routinely given to those who do not have a physical condition but who feel suicidal”.
“You just don’t know what will happen”
In his book Against Physician Assisted Suicide, palliative care specialist Dr David Jeffrey tells the story of a former army instructor who was being treated for terminal cancer and was determined to commit suicide.
After a discussion with the doctor, it emerged that he was missing the Army, and was subsequently taken to watch a passing-out parade of young recruits, where a party had been arranged in his honour.
“His life was transformed,” Dr Jeffrey said. “He had a purpose and his demeanour completely changed. He died two weeks later, comfortably. People’s lives always have that potential. Even in the midst of suffering there can be change.
“You just don’t know what will happen.”