From time to time in recent years efforts are made to introduce legislation in Parliament to make it lawful to help another person commit suicide. Since 1961 it is no longer a criminal act to take your own life but it remains unlawful to help a person to do it. Those who oppose a change to the law call it ‘assisted suicide’; those in favour of change call it ‘assisted dying’.
These legislative proposals are frequently accompanied with stories in newspapers, radio and TV that highlight the tragic cases of people who want to end their lives because of a terrible disease for which there is no cure. Some of them travel to a clinic in Switzerland where they swallow a cocktail of drugs handed to them by a family member or friend. Such is the sympathy these harrowing cases arouse that it seem to be only a matter of when, not if, the law here in the UK will be changed. And when it is, nothing – whatever side of the debate you are on – will be the same again.
We hear this morning’s story in the First Reading (1 Kings 19:4-8) of the Prophet Elijah also wanting his life ended. After he had taken on and defeated prophets of the Baal religion, he was on the run from the forces of Queen Jezebel who swore to have him killed. We find frightened, exhausted and at a very low ebb, all the more so after discovering that his fellow Israelites had abandoned their own religion and turned to this pagan one. We find him lying down under a broom tree (a tall hedge against which desert people sheltered themselves from the sun by day and the wind by night) where he decides he’s had enough and asks God to end his life.
Then something he later saw as miraculous happened. In the Bible, human intermediaries are seen as angels or messengers from God to convey a message or offer support. In Elijah’s case a kind stranger comes upon him and offers him a meal, revives his spirits and encourages him not to give up. God wanted him alive, not dead.
It makes for a lovely story but, sadly, there are people this very day all over the world, some of whom may be known to us, who feel there is no such ‘angel of mercy’ for them, that they cannot be helped and wish to end it all. They may be old and frail, convinced they are a burden on their families; they may be mentally or emotionally ill and in great distress; they may be in prolonged and deep pain; or they might be afflicted with a debilitating condition which will end in a slow death.
In addition to their personal suffering there also will be family members sitting by a dying parent’s bedside and secretly wishing that God would hurry up and end their love one’s suffering, or that a palliative nurse or doctor would give them ‘something’ to speed it up.
The Church’s teaching is that it is unlawful to take part in the deliberate ending of another person’s life so asks that ‘assisted dying’ should not be legalised. Its pro-life ethic also means we are opposes to capital punishment. However, the Church does not advocate keeping a dying person alive at all costs – using extraordinary means to prolong a dying person’s life is not justified. But if the law changes then ‘the right to die is somebody else’s duty to kill’. So will a doctor who has given years to saving lives now be expected to deliberately bring them to a quick end as well?
We each will have our own opinions about assisted dying/suicide becoming legal. My personal fear is that if the law changes elderly people will live in a radically new climate – protected by law up to now, some would feel pressurised to ‘get out of the way’ so as not to be a burden on their families. I’ve yet to hear any evidence to convince me that this would not be so.
However, we now live in a society where a Church that has opposed abortion, civil partnerships, same sex marriage, while blind to abuse carried out by some of its clergy, is no longer listened to by people on the other side of the argument.
In the meantime, whatever the political or moral climate in which we now live, Our Lord’s teaching compels us not to condemn but, as Pope Francis asks, to be people of mercy for others, including those who, like Elijah, who are in distress. And, perhaps, suicidal.
As Jesus is ‘bread come down from heaven’ for us, may he help us to be angels sent by heaven to comfort and support those who are ill, including those in despair. And may He receive into his eternal peace those who could not tolerate life anymore and took their own lives.
Holy Name, Jesmond
8 August 2021