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I tend to avoid the hot-button topics in my blogging, mainly because the internet is usually better at generating heat than light. But it seems that a campaign about euthanasia is being forced on us this Christmas by Dame Esther Rantzen and the Daily Express, and I discover that I feel more strongly about this than I thought. I apologise in advance for a long post (and also in advance, draw attention to my comments policy – scroll down to near the end of that page).

On the whole, I don’t like slippery slope arguments, but in this case there is copious evidence, from countries that have gone down the assisted suicide route, that the slope is indeed slippery enough to ski down. Take Canada. Here’s a summary from the BBC at the start of this year.

Since 2016, Canada’s medical assistance in dying programme – known by its acronym ‘Maid’ – has been available for adults with terminal illness. In 2021, the law was changed to include those with serious and chronic physical conditions, even if that condition was non-life threatening.

This year, it is expected to change again to include some Canadians with mental illness.

The date of the change allowing euthanasia for those whose only medical condition is mental illness has so far been postponed to March 17 next year. Happy St Patrick’s Day.

That same BBC report lists a man who opted for MAID because of hearing loss and a disabled person who was offered assisted death (hardly suicide in this case) as an alternative to having a wheelchair ramp installed in her house.

According to the Associated Press, which cites examples of people being pressured into MAID:

The association of Canadian health professionals who provide euthanasia tells physicians and nurses to inform patients if they might qualify to be killed, as one of their possible “clinical care options.”

Canadian patients are not required to have exhausted all treatment alternatives before seeking euthanasia, as is the case in Belgium and the Netherlands.

Belgium and the Netherlands have extended assisted killing to children, and while it’s so far unusual, Melanie McDonagh has argued in the Spectator that Belgium has effectively used the law to introduce capital punishment by the back door.

Genevieve Lhermitte who murdered her five children – a son and four daughters – in 2007 has been killed by doctors at her own request. It was the conclusion to the tragedy that she originally intended. She had tried to take her own life after the murders, unsuccessfully, and was first convicted for life imprisonment in 2008 and later consigned to a psychiatric hospital in 2019.

The evidence for a slippery slope mounts up every year in the countries that have introduced legislation; the scope of the eligibility criteria keep widening. In those countries, people who campaigned for its introduction said they were arguing for a small and limited change in the law with powerful and rigorous safeguards. Then the changes got larger, the limits expanded, and the safeguards were lowered. In Canada, death by doctor is well on its way to being an option for keeping health-care costs down.

One of the problems we have with this debate is that providing good palliative care already needs massive fund-raising efforts in the voluntary sector to allow our many hospices to stay open. Having a nationwide conversation about good palliative care versus physician-assisted suicide can’t avoid confronting the many wider problems of funding health care, and the shape of the NHS. But I don’t think many people would favour killing Granny just to keep their taxes low.

I also need to add at this point that good palliative care is precisely about helping people die with dignity, a phrase that those arguing for assisted suicide keep trying to hijack to claim that lethal injection is more dignified than natural death. Palliative care is about giving and finding dignity in accepting the inevitability of death and the reality of being mortal, and making it as good a death as is medically possible. It is not, and never has been, about keeping people alive at all costs in the face of suffering. In a curious kind of way, the liberal advocates of euthanasia and the conservative Christian advocates of giving medical treatment to the clinically dead are on exactly the same page, trying to control the limits of natural life rather than accepting them.

This also means that good clinical and pastoral care of those with serious and life-threatening conditions will always include a proper discussion with patients, friends and family about “do not resuscitate” notices. They are as much a part of reaching a good death as managing pain is. They are not, and should not be confused with, any form of euthanasia, even if campaigners sometimes try to elide one with the other.

To the contrary, if we are to take seriously a DNR notice as part of good care of the seriously ill, both patient and family need to be able to trust the medical advice, the prognosis, and the exploration of the options. If doctors are released from their obligation to “first do no harm”, a vital part of that trust is broken. Is that advice not to resuscitate any longer in the best interests of the patient, or is it about saving the health care system some money?

These arguments are enhanced for me because I approach the question not simply from a pragmatic viewpoint, although the pragmatic argument is a strong one, but also from a theological viewpoint.

One of my biggest complaints about the film adaptations of Harry Potter was the special effects death the filmmakers gave to Voldemort. By contrast the Deathly Hallows book emphasises the mundane nature of Tom Riddle’s death, the ordinariness of his corpse. Throughout, Tom Riddle has resisted being ordinary and hated being mortal, he wishes to be Lord Voldemort, the master of death, thinking death can be conquered by magical power. In so doing, he loses his humanity, deforming his soul through multiple acts of murder, a deformity of nature that increasingly shows in his snake-like appearance. Yet when, through Harry’s willingness to surrender to death, Voldemort is defeated, he is returned to ordinariness, and finds that mastery of death is not about the power and control he has lost, but about the surrender and acceptance Harry has demonstrated so fully.

This is JK Rowling at her most profoundly Christian. Rowling even has a quotation from 1 Corinthians on the Potter family headstone: “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (1 Cor 15:26). The story as it develops through the quest for the Deathly Hallows is about what that means. Indeed, one could expound the Hallows as those things that make death holy, a means of life, and, as in Beadle the Bard’s “Tale of the Three Brothers” something to be befriended, rather than feared.

To be human is to be finite and limited, most of all by that horizon we call death, over which we cannot see, beyond which lies Shakespeare’s “undiscovered country, from whose bourne no traveller returns.” (Hamlet III.I) The story we celebrate at Christmas is a story about the infinite, uncreated and immortal one entering into and accepting the limitations of the finite, created and mortal world he has brought into being in order to give it new possibilities of life. The meaning of Christmas can only be expressed in paradox.

Behold, the great Creator makes
himself a house of clay,
a robe of virgin flesh He takes
which He will wear for aye.

Hark, hark, the wise eternal Word
like a weak infant cries!
In form of servant is the Lord,
and God in cradle lies.

Thomas Pestel

God’s embrace of mortality, including suffering and death is both route and vehicle for the only way to life. This is why we speak and sing of it, following St John’s gospel, as light shining in darkness. Death is the most fundamental characteristic of the universe. The death of stars, the death of amoebae, the death of animals, the death of us, and somewhere off in an almost unimaginably distant future, the death of the universe. Death is the horizon and limit of life, within whose boundary we discover what it means to live as mortal, created, limited creatures, who nonetheless have unlimited possibility through the life of the one who comes to us from beyond the universe.

Flesh fade, and mortal trash
Fall to the residuary worm; world’s wildfire, leave but ash:
                            In a flash, at a trumpet crash,
I am all at once what Christ is, since he was what I am, and
This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond,
                            Is immortal diamond.

Gerard Manley Hopkins “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection”

The reason why “That’s Death” is not a sequel to “That’s Life” is that death is not a consumer experience we can control, complain about or seek legal redress over. Death is the paradigm of living a life we cannot control, a life to be explored, enjoyed, suffered, despaired of and delighted in. Death is what shows any sense of being in control to be an illusion. And to be honest, if we have discovered love and friendship, beauty and pleasure, we have already learnt that the best things in life are not things we control. Sadly, and seriously, neither are the worst things in life things we can control, and to believe we can is equally an illusion.

The limitless God enters the experience of a life lived within human limitations, and lives and dies a mortal being, so that as we embrace that love, and live in that light, we, dying mortal with the dying Christ, may find with him the life beyond limits. The only defeat is to attempt mastery, and the only victory is to accept surrender.

By Doug

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