Thought for the Day - Rev Dr Giles Fraser
It is with a certain degree of reluctance that I take as my subject this morning the new proposals that have come out of the Commission for Assisted Dying. ‘Reluctance’ because this is one of those subjects, like abortion, where it’s terribly easy for people to stop listening to each other. And it’s when the listening stops that the ‘culture wars’ begin.
My own position on assisted dying – or assisted suicide - is fairly conservative. I worry about the subtle emotional pressure that may be put on dying people, especially on those concerned not to be a burden to their family and friends. And furthermore, I’m unconvinced that the decision to take one’s own life can be justified simply in terms of individual choice – as if the very category ‘choice’ in and of itself makes a course of action morally acceptable. “My life. My death. My choice”. This feels too much like the ethics of the marketplace where ‘my individual choice’ or ‘because I want to’ are seen as sufficient explanation. Those of us who’ve made our fair share of foolish choices in life know that just because you chose something, that doesn’t make it a good idea – or even right.
But to those who take a different line, all this can sound like some abstract philosophy deeply lacking in practical compassion. Those who propose some version of assisted dying remind us of loved one’s whose last weeks of life are spent in terrible agony, or continuous indignity. To such as these death comes as a release, as something to be welcomed. Can those who are suspicious of assisted dying really remain indifferent to all this pain and suffering?
So where then does the God bit fit into either argument? As it happens, I have very deliberately just described both positions without reference to anything theological whatsoever. And I have done so deliberately because one of the least helpful things about the ‘culture wars’ approach to assisted dying is that it can easily become yet another proxy battle in the wider dispute between believers and unbelievers. Yet the truth is, a great many atheists oppose assisted dying just as a great many religious people support it. It’s not that I think the God bit irrelevant to the whole issue – but rather that there’s something profoundly distasteful about using assisted dying as another front in an increasingly fractious and unhelpful boo-hurrah debate about faith.
Indeed, one of the least attractive features of the American electoral cycle that’s just begun in Iowa is the way that important social issues like assisted dying are yolked together with intemperate arguments over religion. And the problem with this ‘culture wars’ approach is not that people are fighting hard over fundamental convictions –nothing wrong with that - but that they’ve given up listening to each other. For all the attractive things about American politics, the reduction of sensitive moral issues to the size of the bumper sticker argument is not something we ought to be in a hurry to copy over here.