Next Friday Lord Falconer’s Assisted Dying Bill is to be debated in the House of Lords.
Today’s Daily Mail has a long article describing George Carey’s change of mind. The former archbishop, who retired in 2002, has a record of public interventions on topical issues. Unusually, this time he is on the side of public opinion: he now supports a change in the law.
Opposing the change, he said, risks ‘promoting anguish and pain, the very opposite of a Christian message of hope’. Rabbi Jonathan Romain of Dignity in Dying adds:
The former Archbishop’s words are like a breath of fresh air sweeping through rooms cloaked in theological dust that should have been dispersed long ago.
Carey has a knack of embarrassing his successors. At the same time the present Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, argues that changing the law could put vulnerable people under pressure to end their lives so as 'not to be a burden'. It would leave the 'sword of Damocles' hanging over the heads of elderly people.
What gets forgotten is that leaving the law unchanged does not mean we stay as we are. Change is happening all the time. Medical technology keeps developing, keeping more and more people alive who would have died in an earlier age. Although young people often find it hard to believe, elderly people do not want to stay alive at all costs. Increasing numbers are ready to die, and would have died if it were not for the medical interventions - but they have no choice. As the numbers of people in this situation increase, public opinion is increasingly demanding change.
Our technology is advancing. What is not advancing is our ability to judge when to use it – and when to let nature take its course. The result is that, if the technology is available, it gets used. Whatever the dying person says, everybody else - doctors, nurses, relatives – feels reluctant to say ‘Yes, we could keep you alive but your best time of death has arrived’. That time does eventually arrive, of course, but the emphasis is on keeping people alive if at all possible.
Why? Why do we baulk at the thought that the proper time of death has arrived and opt for delaying it whenever the technology is good enough?
Because death is spooky. In most circumstances we know it is wrong to take someone’s life because life is sacred. Life is sacred because without it we would have no experiences at all. In this sense it has supreme value. Normally, valuable things are things we hang onto. We don’t throw them away.
We affirm the sanctity of life, but we do not understand it. The difference between life and death is more than we can describe. It belongs in that world of mystery that makes our hairs stand on end. Our usual response to the spookiness is to put a taboo on it. Life is sacred. Full stop. Period. End of conversation. We refuse to analyse and refine the ban on killing because we are frightened of treading on holy ground.
If anybody can help us tackle assisted dying rationally and compassionately, it ought to be people who believe in life after death. In the Middle Ages they were more businesslike about it. The dominant view was that death is a transition, not an end. I wouldn’t want to return to some of their horrific beliefs about the terrors of purgatory and hell, but they could also be more positive about dying as a process of entering the next stage of life.
Opposition to change, for all that religious leaders promote it, is better understood as a feature of secular society where the death is taken to be the end of a person’s consciousness. Believing this does stack the odds in favour of keeping people alive. This default assumption filters through to the expectation that everybody wants to stay alive if they possibly can. This is what makes young people think it would be good to live to 150. This is what drives the medical research into keeping people alive as long as possible.