The Right to Die?
Sometimes life moves at such a busy pace that it’s easy to think of it as just one thing after another. I think we probably spend too little time processing things, though I was glad to be warned by a friend that too much self-introspection is not entirely healthy!
Last weekend I spent two nights in Zürich at either end of a very full public day of lectures on conversations about assisted suicide. It was the gathering of world right to die societies in a place, of course, that has become rather famous for its liberal laws in this area of living and dying. I think that I had not quite anticipated the shape and culture of this gathering – committed, energetic, political and very sophisticated groups articulating with some force and clarity the absolute right of the individual for choice and self-determination.
Speaker after speaker celebrated the achievements of EXIT and put a consistent case for an assisted suicide. If there was any sense of there being a rather complicated set of arguments against assisted suicide these were not apparent. With an evangelical fervour the large assembled group delighted in the stories of a good death by way of this kind of assistance.
Here is my central dilemma. I have some instinctive sympathy with wanting to live in a liberal and progressive democracy that offers freedom and choice to citizens. Who would really want to turn the clock back and see the forces of homophobia, racial prejudice, misogynism run havoc with people’s lives? Is it possible to see communities and society as inclusive and wholly orientated around human flourishing? How much further to we need to go in order to see barriers broken down and achieve a deeper and more lasting practice of equality and dignity? The present law in the UK is a strange mixture of incoherence and steady maintenance of the status quo. The critique of the law is powerful and persuasive one but in the end I’m not convinced that it is right to implement a change which would shift so many relationships and realities in this area of care and support. I think quite simply that there needs to be more conversation and outside of the narrow constructing frameworks of medicine and the law. At the heart of all of this is our own relationship with death and whether in the end it is right to allow us to control our deaths as we sometimes have the right to control so many other aspects of our lives.
As I sat scribbling away listening to speaker after speaker in Zürich I experienced a significant amount of unease. There is something about this debate that is out of kilter with our inner spiritual selves. The problem for the church is that if we keep on insisting that assisted suicide or dying is always wrong then we run the danger of closing down dialogue and allowing some creativity to urge as people consider what it means to be human and what place lost change and death have in our view of what we might need to do to be whole and indeed free.
As I rose to my feet to offer my reflections I sensed that the group, though polite, had no time for this philosophy which even felt, perhaps, like confused procrastination.
Here are a couple of the core messages of my presentation.
We cannot demand the freedom to choose at any cost. I understand that there are significant difficulties in with the current law in the United Kingdom. My visit to Switzerland with the Commission last year to learn something of the law and practice here raised many more questions about the way a culture views life, death, and the freedom to choose. Legislation does not resolve some of the profoundest of questions about human life and the conditions for its flourishing. It left me feeling that, however complex this area of human life is, it cannot be dealt with through the law or medicine alone. We need a broader and richer narrative within which to locate our experiences of death and dying.
Part of this exploration must take into consideration the intense poverty of language and the purpose and shape of our words. How do we find the language within which to give any sense of the meaning and shape of our lives beyond the superficially immediate and physical ? Has modernity for all its progression left us content?
I think that we need to support a wider cultural engagement with our relationship to death. All of us swim in the one sea of our lives, trying to stay afloat as best we can, clinging to such preservers as we might draw about us: reason and science, faith and religious practice, art, music and imagination. But in the end, we all sink; we all die. I doubt whether many of us have really come to terms with our mortality. Somehow our fears can still take hold. We may want to assert our right to control without attending to the hinterland of our inner world. The map of dying and death remains foreign, an un-negotiable land. We should all attempt to humble ourselves before this reality. We need to engage in dialogue to own and perhaps even change the map of life and death — to enable people and systems to ensure that everyone is given the opportunity to live well and die well in the place and manner of their choosing.
There is a fundamental question about how and whether we own our death.
I doubt very much whether any of this made much difference but one of the things that I do need to think further about is how all we might be able to move this debate into the public arena so that a richer dialogue and narrative can take place.Is there any space between the two polarised views for wisdom?