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Assisted dying debate: There is nothing sacred about suffering

Voices | Published:

DOES religion have a right to get involved in the assisted dying debate? Although some people have resisted the idea, I see no reason why people of faith should not have as much say as anyone else.

Rabbi Jonathan Romain. Picture: COLIN BROOKS

But although religious views are valid, they do not count more than those of others. Religion can have a vote, but not a veto.

It is also important to shout out loud that there is not one religious view, but different perspectives. Just as those of faith differ over whether to permit women priests or gay marriage, so there is a diversity of attitudes to this topic.

In fact, it is precisely because of my work as congregational minister that I have come to be in favour of legalising assisted dying as an option for those who so wish.

After many years of visiting hospitals and hospices, and of seeing people die in pain, I see no merit in individuals being forced to live out their last days in misery if they want to avoid it.

Still, there is a religious irony behind both of the reasons why assisted dying has become increasingly discussed as an option today. First, thanks to modern medical developments, people live longer or are able to resist crippling diseases more effectively.

However, this also means that more people reach a bodily condition in which pain or indignity are constant, at which point some would prefer to die rather than carry on living. Better living conditions have led to harder moral questions.

The second factor is the growth in the belief in personal autonomy and the right to make decisions affecting ourselves. We regard it as natural that we should choose whom we marry, rather than be told by family, and so too in selecting our career path.

If we control our life, why should we not determine when we leave it, especially if we are facing terminal illness?

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A key factor for those wishing to die is the desire to avoid pain, but others are the lack of control over their bodily functions, or the unwelcome image of either being sedated into a state of narcotic stupor in their final days or with their bodies sprouting a forest of tubes.

Some might object that assisted dying means ‘playing God’ – but this ignores the fact that we frequently ‘play God’ – doing so every time we give a blood transfusion or provide a road accident victim with artificial limbs. Should we stop doing that? And no more hip replacements or heart transplants?

There is a strong argument that God wants us to help those in distress: to heal where possible, to comfort when needed, and to help let go of life when desired – that is what many understand as a religious approach.

We can believe in the sanctity of life – how precious it is – but that does not mean believing in the sanctity of suffering, or disregarding steps to avoid it. There is nothing holy about agony.

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If a terminally-ill person does not wish to live out his/her last few months in pain, for what purpose should they be forced to do so, and in whose interest is that life being prolonged?

There are also safeguards being proposed to prevent any abuse. They include the stipulations that the person is terminally ill, is mentally competent and makes the request of their own free will.

In addition, there is a rigorous process for ensuring the above: it can only be initiated if requested by the person him/herself, and they must be assessed by two independent doctors to ensure that they are terminally ill and of sound mind.

On top of this, the person must have been fully informed of palliative, hospice and other care options, while they can change their mind at any time, right up to the last minute.

Another persuasive factor is that we are in the fortunate position of knowing in advance what will be the likely effects of permitting assisted dying. This is thanks to the experiences in Oregon, which has the closest system to the legislation being proposed here.

Since it was introduced in 1997, several thousand dying patients per year inquire about assistance to die, but only around 0.4% opt for it (in 2017 this meant 143 people out of 36,498 who died in Oregon).

It indicates that many people wish to ‘know it’s there’ and have the emotional safety net of knowing they can resort to it if their situation makes life intolerable, but never find they reach that stage.

While many in the Christian and Jewish hierarchy still hold to the traditional opposition to assisted dying, there are a growing numbers of ministers who now favour it. Among them are the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, and Desmond Tutu.

At the same time, attitudes are changing within the general membership too. A Populus poll last year revealed that 79% of those from religious backgrounds – defined as people who take their faith seriously enough to attend services at least once a month, if not weekly – said they supported the law being changed.

If there is a right to die well – or at least to die as well as possible – it means having the option of assisted dying, whether or not it is taken up.

It is also a matter of compassion – the compassion not to force other people who are suffering to keep on suffering if they reckon it is time to let go.

We need to tackle it for their sake. But who knows if we ourselves might one day need it?

*Jonathan Romain is rabbi of Maidenhead Synagogue, Berkshire and editor of Assisted Dying – Rabbinic Responses.

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