Hugh McLachlan: Kirk’s views on assisted suicide are unhelpful

Some might be misled into thinking that Christianity is somehow antithetical to assisted suicide
Some might be misled into thinking that Christianity is somehow antithetical to assisted suicide
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THE Church of Scotland has stated its opposition, writes Hugh McLachlan, but this is not a debate about ethics

ASSISTED suicide continues to be opposed by the Church of Scotland. The Rev Sally Foster-Fulton, the convenor of its Church and Society Council, has presented its views on the matter in this newspaper (The Scotsman, 27 November). It is unwise to rule out the legalisation of assisted suicide on the basis of the supposed philosophical and ethical principles she suggests. Her arguments are defective.

Some people might be misled into thinking that Christianity as such is, somehow, antithetical to assisted suicide and euthanasia. This is unfortunate and something which, as a member of the Church of Scotland, I strongly resent. Her claims have no particular or peculiar affinity to Christianity. Christians might well reject them. Some non-Christians might accept them.

She writes: “We believe that no-one is ever a burden and that we are called to love sacrificially, whatever the cost.”

People often are burdens to others, although they should not be treated merely as such. Furthermore, to bring to people’s attention that they are burdens can be unkind. Nonetheless, I, like anyone else, might become a burden to those I love and to the public at large. It is a gross impertinence for Sally Foster-Fulton and her council to decide on my behalf and on the behalf of others that it is not appropriate for us to choose to be motivated by that manifest fact. It is inappropriate paternalism.

Some vulnerable people need to be protected. Some of them might be pressurised into trying to kill themselves. However, that is no reason for making suicide a crime, as it used to be. It is no reason for making assisted suicide a crime with regard to all people in all instances.

Sally Foster-Fulton writes: “We come to this decision from a place of deep concern for others and a reverence for human flourishing.” All of us, whether or not we are Christians and whether or not we are in favour of the legalisation of assisted suicide, could make this claim.

She continues: “We come from an understanding of humanity as something to be found in community, not in autonomy – that truly no-one is an island, and our actions impact one another, sometimes in profound ways that go far beyond the ‘individual’ decision we make.”

Again this is uncontroversial. Nothing of any relevance or significance follows from it. It would be no less reasonable (or unreasonable) to argue from these assumptions that, for the aged and ill, involuntary euthanasia should sometimes be compulsory as to conclude that assisted suicide should always be illegal.

To say that an action such as assisted suicide or non-assisted suicide affects or concerns everyone else in society is highly dubious. However, even if it were true, it would not be an argument against the legalisation of assisted suicide.

Even if suicide, assisted suicide and euthanasia were harmful, it does not follow that they should all be illegal. Atheism – or theism – might be socially harmful. Adultery might be socially harmful. It does not follow that such things should be illegal. Wrongfulness is not the same as harmfulness. Not all things that affect the rest of the public adversely are the proper business of the state to interfere with.

According to the Rev Sally Foster-Fulton: “At the heart of the debate are two very different perspectives: the idea of choices as being how we are best able to express our human dignity, against the idea of community as being the place where our humanness is discovered and expressed.”

This is vacuous. It is hot air. The debate does not revolve around the points here alluded to. Furthermore, there is no apparent connection between what is said and Christianity.

Christianity is neither a code of ethics nor a political programme. There is very little in the Gospels that bears, even indirectly, upon the issues of assisted suicide and euthanasia. Christ commanded us to love God and love our neighbours as we love ourselves. He did not command us to pass particular laws nor to make particular actions crimes.

The only passage in the Gospels which comes readily to mind and which concerns anything like assisted suicide or euthanasia is the report of the soldiers at the cross who broke the legs of the others who were crucified along with Christ, who was already dead, in order to hasten their deaths. They would soon asphyxiate.

Although this was done in order that the bodies did not remain on the cross on the day of a religious festival rather than as a mercy killing, I have never heard a clergyman preach a sermon to the effect that such killing was wrong.

It is good that the soldiers did what they did. Their actions would have been, morally, even better had they been performed specifically as acts of assisted suicide or euthanasia. If a bystander had intervened sooner and, illegally, brought the agony of Christ’s fellow sufferers to a premature end, he or she would, I suggest, have been considered by history to have been commendably heroic.

That suicide, assisted suicide, euthanasia and killing of other sorts can, in principle, sometimes be morally justifiable is hardly very contentious. After all, few of us are pacifists. Few of us are vegetarians. What is contentious and difficult to settle is not the ethics of the matter but the practical questions of whether euthanasia and assisted suicide should be permitted and, if so, in what specific circumstances. The views of the Church of Scotland are not illuminating here.

• Hugh McLachlan is Professor of Applied Philosophy in the Glasgow School for Business and Society at Glasgow Caledonian University