How should we approach assisted suicide? With tears, not judgement

A decision in Belgium to authorise euthanasia for children prompted widespread outrage.Reuters

You don't have to be a news and current affairs junkie to realise there is a perennial interest in death and dying. Scarcely a week goes by without another high profile media probe highlighting the inadequacies of end of life care in our health services, or the tragic story of an individual who committed suicide to escape the suffering and indignity of a terminal illness.

A recent example was successful businessman Jeffrey Spector, whose story made headlines in May 2015. He had an inoperable and slowly growing tumour of the spine and had been warned that it would eventually lead to paralysis and death. Spector decided he wanted to be in control of the final stages of his life and chose to kill himself rather than suffer the indignity of paralysis and dependence. He said he had "decided to jump the gun". After a celebratory final meal with family and friends, he travelled to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland where he took a lethal dose of barbiturates, dying instantly.

Predictably, the case was seized on and highlighted by campaigners in the UK, who argue that the law should be changed to allow doctors to assist patients to kill themselves. 

According to the current law in England, although suicide itself is not illegal, a person who "aids, abets, counsels or procures the suicide of another" is committing a serious criminal offence and is liable to a long prison sentence. In September, MP Rob Marris will introduce a Private Member's Bill into the House of Commons designed to allow doctors to assist in the suicide of patients with a terminal illness who have less than six months to live.

The media campaigns around this appear to have been effective in influencing public opinion in favour of the change, though in public surveys the percentage in favour changes dramatically depending on the wording of the question.

Several prominent Christian leaders, including the previous Archbishop Lord Carey and South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, have also publicly stated that they are now in favour of assisted suicide. They argue that Christian believers have a duty to provide the option of a quick and painless suicide for those who request it at the end of life.

But why is it that at this time in our history, debates about the legalisation of medical assisted suicide have become so prominent? Many people today, it seems, find it inconceivable that they are not allowed to control the timing and the manner of their death. The argument goes like this: If I can control every other aspect of my life, and my right to choose is central to my existence, then why can I not choose and control the way in which I die? Like Jeffrey Spector, many modern people are terrified of becoming dependent on others - we fear becoming a burden.

This raises important political and theological questions. But behind the politics there is deep human pain. Whenever we discuss these complex and difficult topics, I think our first responsibility as Christians is to enter into the experience of many in our society who feel that life is not worth living. We must try to understand the deep internal agony that drives them to want to end their lives. And we should talk about these issues not with judgement or fear in our voices, but with tears in our eyes.

Some people reading these words will have been personally involved with these questions and fears. You may have watched a loved one struggle with terminal illness or dementia, and wondered whether death would not be preferable to a drawn-out life. Or perhaps you yourself know that you have a condition which is likely to lead to your own death and you are wondering what the future holds.

In the following articles in this series we will look at the consequence of changing the law on assisted suicide, what it means to die well and why, paradoxically, it is in being a burden to one another that we learn more of what it means to be human.

Professor John Wyatt is a leading expert on end of life issues and a former chair of the medical study group of the Christian Medical Fellowship (CMF). He is the author of a new study guide on death and dying called Finishing Line.