Sally Foster-Fulton: Why the Kirk opposes an assisted suicide law

Margo MacDonald delivered a witty version of the Betjeman poem. Picture: Getty
Margo MacDonald delivered a witty version of the Betjeman poem. Picture: Getty
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Legislation that permits the taking of life would alter society in harmful ways that we can only guess at, says Sally Foster-Fulton

GREY areas and muddy waters – those are the places where the vulnerable can get lost. And there could be no muddier water to be found than when you begin to explore the issue of assisted suicide. Although the Church of Scotland continues to oppose the legislation to allow assisted suicide, we do not do so lightly, nor do we come from a place of absolutes or black and whites. We come to this decision from a place of deep concern for others and a reverence for human flourishing. 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.

Our abiding concern is that to create a law that permits the taking of life will fundamentally alter society’s view, and the right to die may become, especially for the most vulnerable, a duty to die. The slippery slope argument is not a knee-jerk reaction but a considered concern that some vulnerable people will end up being (feeling) pressured into accepting assisted suicide as their fate, that they are a burden and can relieve others by opting out. There is also a danger that society itself will, in time, adopt a different attitude towards those with particular struggles. We believe that no-one is ever a burden and that we are called to love sacrificially, whatever the cost.

Recognising that it is a debate rooted in real human struggles that cannot be dealt with by moral absolutes, the Church of Scotland is deeply respectful of Margo MacDonald’s commitment to this debate, and we are keen to create a space for honest conversation and reflection. We do not come to our view from a dogmatic position, but we hold to it with the same deep concern for others that we see in those who continue to argue the case for such legislation.

Whilst the Church of Scotland continues to oppose legalising assisted suicide, it recognises that the event hosted last week by Margo MacDonald is a sign of a healthy democracy. Rooted in the deep complexities of human relationships, compassion and our mutual desire to alleviate suffering, this is a debate that needs to continue. And it is in light of this commitment to continued debate that the Church would express disappointment that its view is dismissed by some as “dogma” whilst the view of the pro-legislation speakers are portrayed as the only rational and reasonable reflections on this difficult issue.

It is also regrettable that words have been put into the mouth of the church that simply are not there, nor do they represent the serious level of consideration we have given and are still giving to this issue.

The sixth commandment, “not to kill”, has been subject to interpretation since its inception; some interpret it in its original form as a command not to kill unlawfully, so allowing killing in war to protect oneself or others, while others unpack it to mean that whenever a human life is taken, it is cause for a profound sadness. The Church does not leave this piece of scripture sitting on a shelf untouched or ill-considered; rather, it grapples with the complexities of that call to seeing the sacred in all life in every aspect of its work. It is that “sacred nature” that is at the heart of the issue, and to try to turn it into a narrow-minded literal reaction is unfair, untrue, and flawed.

It has also been said that the Church’s “other main argument”, that life is a gift from God and only God can choose the moment of death, was also “deeply flawed”. If that were the church’s stance, that would truly be a naive point of view. The church embraces scientific advances that uplift life and allow people to live fully until they die. We challenge the notion that this is simply a debate about choice, as if those choices do not affect others.

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.

It’s in this clash that another regularly used challenge to the Church’s view is voiced; that the church is seeking to “impose its view on others who do not hold to its belief system”. The fact, however, is that the imposition of legislation offering one perception of “choice” predicated on a false idea of autonomy, ignores our fundamental connectedness and is a similar imposition of belief that is equally unacceptable to those who object to legalising assisted suicide. We believe that, as human beings, we do not act alone and our actions always affect others. To ignore that understanding is to impose an alternate belief on us. This debate needs to grapple with those fundamentally opposing principles of autonomy and community before it responds to the very tragic and painful stories of those whose life experiences have formed the bedrock of the legalising assisted suicide argument. Otherwise it faces the danger expressed in the old adage of extreme cases making bad law.

The term “dignity” is often used in this debate, presented as an objective and clearly defined entity, embodied by assisted suicide. Human dignity is a complex but important issue, which cannot simply be reduced to the manner in which a person considers him or herself. Dignity is not an expression of autonomy but of relationship. Our idea of dignity is an articulation of how we feel about ourselves in the context of our relationships with others. It is inaccurate to define dignity in care, and in dying, simply in terms of the availability of assisted suicide.

The work of the Church means many of our members find themselves walking with those who are in great suffering. Our views come from and are tested by those very real experiences. They may be shaped by our faith but they are set in our commitment to a community that is nurtured by the views of people of all faiths and none. Our compassion is for those suffering right now and for those who might find themselves facing struggles that they need not face as a consequence of assisted suicide being made legal.

• Rev Sally Foster-Fulton is convener of the Church and Society Council, Church of Scotland