One of the most heartening aspects of the national response to Covid has been the razor-sharp focus on reducing and preventing death, prioritising the protection of those most vulnerable to death or serious illness, namely the sick and elderly. A crude utilitarian approach would have begun with the vaccination of the young, healthy and those deemed to contribute the most measurable economic ‘benefit’ to society. Such an approach, had it been pursued, would rightly have provoked outrage, and yet the very fact that it was not proves that society chooses to uphold the inherent worth and dignity of every human life.
In the Bible we can trace the roots of this underlying principle, for there we learn that every person, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, disability or any other factor, is uniquely made in the image of their creator. As King David sang: “I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Psalm 139:14)
The principle that all life is worthy of protection is also helpful as we consider the arguments for and against the Assisted dying proposal presently being pioneered by a group of MSPs. While a desire to maximise autonomy over the circumstances of our death and reduce suffering may sound appealing, the proposal risks sending a message that some lives are no longer worth living. Vulnerable people may feel an anxiety not to be a burden on others, while initial ‘safeguards’ would likely, as has happened in Belgium and Canada, be expanded and eroded over time.
Whatever one’s view, as we begin this national dialogue, it is vital that it be approached with an abundance of compassion and an absence of hyperbole, for it is, by definition, a subject that must be tenderly handled. During his brief earthly ministry, and prior to his own hideous death on a Roman Cross, Jesus often encountered the sick and grieving. He did so with much compassion and empathy. Indeed, in John’s Gospel, we read that Jesus himself wept over the death of his dear friend Lazarus.
While the tragedy of Covid is that it robbed us of so many loved ones, as the Prime Minister warned in those early days, ‘before their time’, it is equally true that death has always been the common fate of every one of us. The Duns born Scots theologian Thomas Boston (1676-1732), who ministered throughout the Scottish Borders over many decades, once wisely observed (with a typical Scottish down to earth realism): “We are in this world, as on a stage. It is no great matter, whether a man act the part of a prince or a peasant, for when they have acted their parts, they must both get behind the curtain and appear no more.” If this be so, it is surely wise to ponder, from time to time, the coming day of our own death.
Perhaps the most compelling argument underpinning the sanctity of human life is that God, at a fixed point in history, sent his Son, Jesus Christ, into our world to redeem people from spiritual death through his own death and resurrection. As the Apostle John puts it: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have eternal life” (John 3:16). While death naturally repels and troubles us, God has provided all that is needed to ultimately conquer it when it eventually comes.
Michael Veitch, Parliamentary Officer, CARE for Scotland