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CHRISTIAN VIEWPOINT: Assisted dying is a complicated topic

By John Dempster

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Older people.
Older people.

MSP Liam McArthur’s Assisted Dying Bill was published at Holyrood at the start of April. In their submissions to the earlier consultation process all the major Scottish churches opposed the aims of the Bill.

If it becomes law, terminally ill adults will, at their request, be supported by health professionals as they take their own lives, using a prescribed substance. This is conditional on the person being judged capable of making an informed decision: there are a number of safeguards in place.

Christians believe life is a precious gift from God, and dying a solemn transition. As the Scottish Episcopal Church said in their submission ‘dying, in Christian understanding, is a placing of ourselves in God’s hands, where we have always rested, whether we knew it or not’.

We hear of people in pain, increasingly limited in what they can do for themselves, who long for the legalised release that assisted dying offers. We know that pain control in the process of dying is not always completely successful. Christians must respond with humility and faith without sentimentalising the visceral horror of death.

If facing a difficult dying we know how we would like to respond – with a lifting of our spirits above our failing bodies, an entrusting of ourselves to the Great Love who suffers with us – but we can’t know for certain how we will react.

In love and compassion I could see myself perhaps saying ‘Yes!’ to an individual seeking assisted dying if all the safeguards were in place, and if they were accompanied in their journey towards death by a loving community of friends or family. And yet I shrink from this.

And it’s complicated. The previous two Archbishops of Canterbury take opposite sides in the debate. There’s concern that there may be coercion, despite the safeguards, and that older people in need of care might begin to question whether it is right to continue to live in view of the burden on others.

There’s concern that other people with other kinds of non-terminal illness and suffering will also want to have access to assisted dying. There’s concern that suicide and the taking of life will come to be seen as acceptable in certain circumstances.

There’s concern about extremist views which regard assisted dying as a way of addressing the problem of how old age and infirmity is to be paid for.

One House of Commons social care committee’s strong recommendations in their report on assisted dying published in February with reference to England and Wales is that universal access to palliative care should be provided, supporting people in dying naturally, and bringing comfort to them, body, mind and spirit.

For the Christian in need of such support, this is surely the optimum way of making this greatest of journeys.

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