26 February 2010
Assisted Suicide - A Step Forward
While both sides in the debate have criticised the statement it is, in my view, a big step forward toward a law that will legalise assisting in the suicide of a loved one who no longer wishes to live but who is incapable of taking their own life. While not changing the law – it is still illegal to assist – the clarification recognises the change in public mood that makes it unlikely to secure convictions in certain circumstances – and thus a waste of public money to prosecute. It is now only a matter of time before Parliament accepts the inevitable and legislates accordingly, possibly along the lines of the tribunals advocated by Terry Pratchett.
The guidance makes it unlikely that someone will be prosecuted if the following conditions apply:
· They acted wholly out of compassion for the person they assisted
· The deceased had a clear and settled determination to die
In deference to disability campaigning groups the DPP included no reference to non-prosecution based on any physical or mental ailment of the deceased as this may have appeared discriminatory. In reality it will be only severely disabled people who will not be able to take their own lives without assistance but this did not need to be spelled out.
Why should this be an issue on which non-religious people have a special view? Well it isn’t really, the only reason why the non-religious might take a particular interest in it is that the churches have campaigned against any change in the law on the basis of real or imagined religious dogma. This was exemplified in the last ‘First Person’ column of the Bishop of Leicester, Tim Stevens, in the Leicester Mercury, 20th January 2010. Tim Stevens is now the most senior of the Anglican Church’s 26 placemen in the House of Lords so this is the policy of the Church of England.
Refreshingly, the Bishop made no reference to religious dogma but only said that ‘the law must recognise the absolute value of every human life’. Insofar as this phrase restates the underlying secular value adopted for the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights (‘Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world’) I can have no quibble with it, but if the Bishop is trying to smuggle in some other notion then I most certainly do.
As noted before on this blog, Christianity, in common with a number of other religions, has not got an unblemished record in respect of the value of individual lives. Indeed, it has only got where it is today by having no regard at all for the lives of those who opposed it, be they ancient British Pagans, South American Aztecs or Muslim infidels in ‘the holy land’. It is not even clear to me that the New Testament, or any other monotheistic holy book (Torah or Koran), makes any unequivocal statement along the lines suggested by the Bishop. If they do I’d like to hear about it as my impression of the two latter examples, especially, is one of legitimising the unremitting taking of the lives of opponents of the religion in question.
Christianity has a history of parasitism on the ideas and practices of others. That’s why we have Christmas at the time of the Pagan festivities for the Winter solstice instead of some time in October when it is estimated Jesus of Nazareth was (possibly) born. It may well be that now the notion of human rights is embedded in modern culture the Christian churches want to claim it as their own. It isn’t.