Legalisation of Assisted Suicide

John Hayward, June 2010

The arguments for legalising assisted suicide and euthanasia are in the process of imperceptibly changing from a duty of compassion towards the suffering, into the right of self-destruction for the hopeless. They are predicated on a potent individualistic delusion of isolated autonomous choice, a refusal to acknowledge the reality of our mutual interconnectedness and interdependence as human beings in society. The principled opposition of our current law to homicide and assisted suicide provides an essential safeguard for carers, for the medical profession and for the elderly and vulnerable who may fear that their lives have become burdensome and valueless. 

In our latest Cambridge Paper, Professor John Wyatt argues that the increasing public support for the legalisation of assisted suicide provides an urgent challenge to the medical and legal professions and to the Christian community as a whole.  Many people have a fear of inappropriate and burdensome medical over-treatment at the end of life, and this drives the demand for assisted suicide.  The provision of skilled palliative care is inadequate, few doctors receive detailed training in palliative techniques, and tragically, many people in the UK still die with inadequate pain and symptom relief.  Vastly more resources are spent by Government and medical charities alike on researching treatments for life-threatening illness, than are devoted to improving the quality and availability of end of life care.  As a community we need to insist on a reorientation of priorities so that care for the elderly, the chronically disabled and the terminally ill receives the focus that it deserves. 

The growing focus on personal autonomy and self determination provides a challenge to the Christian community to demonstrate a countercultural and alternative understanding of the sanctity of human life and the nature of human interdependence and interconnectedness.  In a society where millions of elderly suffer isolation, abandonment and the silent horror of abuse, can the Christian community provide a resource of compassionate and sacrificial caring?

John Wyatt is Professor of Ethics & Perinatology at University College London and author of Matters of Life and Death: Human Dilemmas in the Light of the Christian Faith (2nd ed., IVP, 2009).

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