Sea of Faith, Yorkshire


Dying with Dignity 6th Feb 2010

We discussed the many different attitudes to suicide and assisted dying, and suprisingly agreed on a conclusion.

Rodney Hooper opened discussion by pointing out something we had all failed to think of, namely that suicide has sometimes been viewed with favour, or at least honour, by some groups in history (and today). He mentioned the Roman and Japanese acceptance of falling on one's sword to expiate disgrace - not unknown in modern Europe among the officer and professional classes. He also mentioned the Japanese kamikaze pilots of WW2, and the suicide bombers of today. Last but not least, was not Jesus' submission to self-sacrifice in the crucifixion, in effect, a suicide?

The current debate focuses on other issues, namely the conflict of rights perceived in being allowed to choose the time of one's death, versus the slippery slope that might follow for others, who could feel pressure to opt for assisted dying should this become an accepted practice. Points made here were:-

  • hospices do not always ensure a pain-free death
  • there is no evidence of a slippery slope appearing in places where assisted dying is permitted (Oregon USA, Holland, Belgium)
  • assisted dying should not be confused with suicide as such (or with euthanasia), since most people who opt for assisted dying wish to live well for as long as they possibly can
  • the slippery slope has in fact overtaken abortion practice in the UK. The initial strict requirements for evidence of risk to the mother in continuing the pregnancy, plus consent from two doctors, have been swept away (though not everywhere in the USA)
  • the stance of the Roman Catholic church against abortion, assisted suicide and other forms of intervention seen as 'against nature', though anomalous in many ways (all medicine and all culture is against nature) can be understood as expressing the admirable higher principle that we should not treat each other instrumentally (ie as means to ends), or as mere biological material
  • there is irony in the fact that much effort and subtle argument is devoted to the relatively few cases where assisted dying is at issue, when currently lives are being sacrificed wholesale in wars, on all sides, without much forethought or concern by our political leaders. Some suspect a diversionary tactic in the hot debates over abortion and assisted dying in the USA particularly
Possible safeguards against a slippery slope developing in assisted dying were mentioned. These were: community tribunals (as proposed by Terry Pratchett); informal family councils (we thought these were unlikely to work well), and the Living Will (currently available). The practical information was given that Living Will forms can be obtained from the 'Dignity in Dying' organisation.

Power of Attorney was also mentioned: if properly drawn up by a solicitor, this can be costly, but current practice is designed to ensure that power is not given over until incapacity has been evidenced. Some religious groups (eg Quakers) are currently offering pro-formas that allow members to specify their preferred death arrangements, including their financial details.

The conclusion we reached was that (probably) more people will benefit from assisted dying than will suffer from a slippery slope developing.

This is the first of a planned series of sessions when we will try to arrive at a Sea of Faith voice on important issues. Later in the year we will discuss 'The Family', 'The Steady State Economy', and 'Books that Matter'.

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