For some people in public life retiring seems to bring about more, not less, time in the spotlight. George Carey may have stepped down as Archbishop of Canterbury in 2002 but since then he seems to have become the media’s go to voice when they need a religious contrarian. Mostly he comes across as a batty old man whose views are those of another generation. One imagines that the more liberal, modernising members of the Anglican Church despair whenever he is quoted in the media. This week, however, he did something quite unlike him and came out in favour of assisted dying.
The right to die is one of the thorniest moral issues facing not just the church but also society at large. With an ever increasing elderly population and no sign of an increase in health or welfare spending it is something that is not going to fade away with time. Currently assisted suicide, or assisted dying as it is sometimes called, is illegal and those who help a loved one to commit suicide in Britain can face criminal charges. However, if one has the money to fly to the continent and pay a clinic in Zurich around £4,000, then no such charges will be brought. At the risk of sounding a little crass, the status quo gives those with money an option to die with dignity that those without cannot take.
But why is assisted suicide an issue that needs to be tackled? I would argue that, at the most basic level, it is a question of equality. People who are terminally ill and have to endure a miserable quality of life with no chance of relief deserve the ability to meet death on their own terms. Suicide is not a pleasant topic to ponder at any time, but if a person is suffering from the slow erosion of their physical faculties they may well consider it the only option they have left. However, if they are unable to physically perform the act because of illness then assistance, even in a very small way, becomes essential. In this instance why should a Christian prohibition on suicide stop them?
There is the worry that the legalisation on assisted dying will lead to euthanasia being practiced upon the elderly and infirm against their will. The current Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, has said it would be a ‘sword of Damocles’ hanging over them. This is a real danger but is not a trend that appears to have occurred in countries where assisted suicide is legal. Those who advocate the right to die are not suggesting that the law allows people to be pressured or bullied into a death they do not want . Rather, it has always been a campaign to allow those who, on reflection, wish to end their life with some dignity rather than suffer a long, painful disintegration.
Perhaps this is where the real issue with assisted suicide arises. It runs contrary to the religious belief that a divine power controls life and death and that human beings should not tamper with this. Putting aside the absurdity of this statement this is certainly not a belief that is universally held. Just as those who opposed equal marriage on the grounds that it did not fit their idea of marriage were wrong so to are those who oppose the right to die based solely on their own notions of how life should end. The end of life is a very personal thing and we should give people in terrible circumstances the opportunity to chose how they meet it. To do otherwise is to create more suffering in the world than their needs to be.