Logically it ought to be the other way round. As David Seymour’s proposed assisted dying bill divides New Zealand, Jonathan Rees describes the debate between Anglican bishops. Two retired and one assistant bishop think assisted dying is ‘a good and moral choice’ but eight currently serving diocesan bishops, in leadership positions, think ‘the protection of human life is a fundamental cornerstone of society’.
It isn’t just New Zealand. Around the world, wherever medical technology can keep people alive, people ask: should we always postpone death as long as we can? Or should we sometimes accept that the time for death has come, and assist it? Eight states in the US, Canada and the Australian state of Victoria have accepted the need for assisted dying in some cases.
When it comes to reflecting on death, we are like mountain hikers whose map has been blown away by the wind. Not knowing which direction to take, we carry on the way we were going before.
The whole idea of the ‘sanctity of life’ has religious roots. Few would want to go back to the attitudes of the ancient Roman Empire. Then, a popular form of entertainment was watching gladiators fight each other to the death. Unwanted babies were dumped on a hillside where they would cry themselves to sleep and death, unless some stranger rescued them and brought them up for a life of slavery.
Jews didn’t do it. The first page of the Bible declared that all humans had been created as an act of blessing, so that they might flourish. Jews – and, later, Christians, Muslims and others – understood this to mean we have been created by a god who transcends our understanding and values us more than we can know.
Instinctively, we find births miraculous and deaths spooky. They remind us that life means more than we can explain. They draw our attention to purpose and value that we cannot put into words. So we call life sacred. Hence ‘the sanctity of life’.
Modern secular society has inherited the idea but taken out the transcendent element, leaving ‘the sanctity of life’ as a standalone principle, still obligatory but impossible to justify or explain.
So we do what we usually do when we inherit activities from the past but no longer know their purpose. We carry on doing them – and because we don’t know why, we don’t know when to stop. Without our map we no longer know what it means to call life sacred, but we still feel a duty to keep people alive whenever possible.
In this way it becomes an absolute unbreakable rule. Medical technology, which often saves lives that would otherwise have come to an premature end, also gets used to delay the natural processes of a life coming to an end. It then becomes a tyrant.
On the issue of assisted dying, just as on many other issues, the statements of public figures change on retirement. As long as they are running something, they play the part and say what they are expected to say. When the job comes to an end they find the freedom to say what they really think. This was certainly the case with former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Carey and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who both became vocal advocates of assisted dying in the years following their respective retirements.
Just as a full stomach is not a problem to be solved so that we can carry on eating, death is not a problem to be solved so that we can carry on living. Church leaders should be the first, not the last, to know it.
If the bishops could dig more deeply into their own tradition, they might rediscover their map. What ‘the sanctity of life’ means, for those who can still explain it, is that life is a gift. It is designed to bless us, but not for ever – at least in its present form. The appropriate response is to enjoy it with gratitude so that, when it comes to its natural end and is no longer a blessing, everybody can accept that it is time to let it go.