Assisted Dying – humanism vs. religion?



A few days ago I was fortunate enough to have a meeting with my local MP (Robert Buckland, Conservative, Swindon South) and was able to have a decent discussion about a few of the current issues the BHA are campaigning for. We talked about faith schools in a broad sense and more specifically about selective admissions, humanist marriage, Bishops in the House of Lords, pseudoscience (homeopathy in particular) and a couple of other things – but the issue that I found most interesting was assisted dying.

This is always an important issue, but it was good to discuss it now as a new bill is currently going through the House of Lords and will be debated very soon. Lord Falconer’s bill has a quite narrow focus I think, looking at a very specific group of people in very specific circumstances, which I think is probably a good thing at this stage as that must give it a stronger chance of success. Here are links to find out all the details:

Assisted Dying Bill [HL] 2014-15 sponsored by Lord Falconer of Thoroton.

Dignity in Dying’s page on the Assisted Dying Bill.

There are of course many objections to the concept of assisted dying and we discussed a few of them including concerns that the most vulnerable people may feel pressured or even be coerced into making a particular choice; that to pass even a very limited bill would start a slide down a ‘slippery slope’ leading to ever wider and less controlled versions of assisted dying; that it may end up with people who aren’t in serious pain or discomfort ending their lives unnecessarily. These are all valid concerns and must be very careful addressed – and I think that is happening. It’s very important to look at the evidence to make decisions regarding these concerns. Dignity in Dying has a great deal of information on their website, so rather than listing everything here, I would invite you to check out their site and look through all the information they have there.

I mentioned to Mr.Buckland when we were discussing some of these concerns that the state of Oregon in the US made assisted dying legal way back in 1997 and to my knowledge none of the concerns about abuse of the system or the ‘slippery slope’ had happened there. He wasn’t so sure that was the case, so it’s definitely something to look into again. But Dignity in Dying have a lot of info on the Oregon situation and to me it answers a lot of questions:

Dignity in Dying – Assisted dying in Oregon

But those issues are not my main concern with how Mr.Buckland approached the whole debate. Those concerns seems to me to be pragmatic; they are are not objections in principle and I believe that if they can be addressed successfully (and I think they certainly can be) then there shouldn’t be a further barrier to prevent assisted dying from eventually becoming legal. After all, the core motivation of it is simply to reduce unnecessary suffering and the concerns I’ve mentioned of course have the same goal. Unfortunately there is a potential further barrier – religion. Mr. Buckland is an Anglican and was quite honest in saying that beyond the concerns I’ve already mentioned, his faith was also an important factor in his objection to assisted dying in principle. He mentioned things such as the sanctity of human life and how it is possible to ‘have a good death’ (which I’m still a little confused about). But if the final hurdle is a principled position based on a religious belief about the nature of life, or of what it means to be a human being – what if, like me, you don’t hold those beliefs? Why should I be forced to conform to them? This is after all an issue of choice – no one who disagrees with it could be forced to do it in the same way that no one who disagrees with gay marriage could be forced into one; it’s simply allowing a choice to those who want it.

We didn’t get into a theological debate (although that would be fun) but the fundamental difference between our views I would say is that as a humanist and atheist I don’t believe there is life beyond death, I believe that this life is the only one we get (and when I say believe, I mean I accept that as a conclusion based on the evidence) whereas a religious person presumably would believe in an afterlife. That being the case, the religious person who is looking to reduce unnecessary suffering has to take possible events beyond this life into consideration (not least of which might be what their particular deity might demand). That’s the major fault-line here in my opinion.

I asked Mr.Buckland what he thought about David Cameron’s recent and repeated claim that this is ‘a Christian country’ and unsurprisingly he was very much supportive of what Cameron was trying to say. It’s undoubtedly true that Christianity has played a central role in our history, but so have people of other faiths and people of none. Whether our legal system is based on Christian principles as was claimed at the time by others is not something I know anything about and would be interested to learn, but it is very clear that secular ideas have played a much bigger part in recent times in improving human rights and equality (with much religious opposition a lot of the time). And finally we know now that a majority of people in the country have no religion at all (50.6%, with 41.7% identifying as Christian – British Social Attitudes Survey 31) and that we are becoming less and less religious (at quite a rate) over the years. So while we can argue about what being a Christian country even means, it’s demonstrably not true of the population of our country. We are many things, not one.

But maybe I’m worrying about it too much. Even the religious objections to assisted dying would seem to be quite weak, as when looking up poll data on assisted dying in preparation for the meeting, I was surprised to find that in many polls a large majority of believers are in favour of it. Just look at these numbers:

71% of religious people agreed that a doctor should probably or definitely be allowed to end the life of a patient with a painful incurable disease at the patient’s request. (British Social Attitudes Survey 2010)

62% of people who identified strongly as belonging to a religion supported the legalisation of assisted dying for terminally ill adults with mental capacity. (YouGov 2013)

78% of those who attended a place of worship at least once a month supported assisted dying.(YouGov 2013)

Those final two statistics are very telling it seems to me, as these are not the ‘cultural Christians’ who may well have ticked that box on the Census but don’t actually ever set foot in a place of worship, they are proper practising believers. I also thought Mr.Buckland was quite surprised by those numbers. The way I see it is that this is one of those issues where, in the weight of public opinion, the debate is all but over and it is inevitable that eventually these changes will be made. To be strongly against them, especially if it is mainly for religious reasons, is to be on the wrong side of history in this case. Mr.Buckland was unconvinced; which is fine, I’ll certainly keep trying to convince him – but he was willing to be convinced. I’ll be following the progress of the bill with great interest and not a little hope.



*top image from Dignity in Dying