Assisted dying: a Christian argument

There is no justification for a claim that Christianity must oppose the assisted death of a person who has made their own decision to die, provided that such a person can convince others that their desire to die is fully considered.

I will make this argument given two conditions: first that the person is capable of making an educated decision, and second that their end-of-life experience includes full access to both pastoral and medical care.

The most common faith-based complaint is that life must be preserved at all costs because it is sacred. However, not many would dispute a right to self defence which may sometimes require lethal force. Furthermore, our social structures are designed to allow for life to be lost as an unfortunate but unavoidable consequence. It is clear that no functional transport system, for example, could be made entirely safe. If life were irreducibly sacred, all of these points would be of great concern; that they are not seems to provide evidence that life fails to be sacred in the sense that would allow it to be used as an indefeasible trump against assisted dying.

More specifically, one familiar position from those with a faith-based opposition to assisted dying is that when a patient is undergoing medical treatment, even if such patients no longer want to live, they must be made to stay alive for as long as possible because God alone can decide when one may die.

I'll accept a claim that God's will is decisive. Having done so, I cannot then understand how God's decisive will can consistently approve of medical intervention to sustain life against a natural end, but not approve intervention so that a patient can find death when that patient no longer wants to be kept alive by medical intervention. The God in whom I believe is nothing if not consistent; a good God must be, by definition.

On the topic of God's nature, my next reason for believing that God is in favour of the possibility of assisted dying is based in God being both loving and perfect. I am unlikely to accept as "loving" the sort of god that demands that we suffer unnecessarily. I do not say that it is possible to always avoid all suffering. I do say that I find it incompatible with my conception of God that a patient be effectively tortured by being kept alive with no hope of anything but pain and deterioration. God would not want that to happen to me; he thinks more of me than that.

Having been created in God's image, my third reason here for supporting self-aware assisted death, is the most telling. My faith, based on my understanding of the life and works of Christ, tells me that I will have to account for the choices that I make. The teaching of Christ is all about refusing to accept conventional religious wisdom, which would be easy but thoughtless, and instead steadfastly making one's own moral choices. Jesus chose to die rather than compromise this point. The gift that God has given to me is not life, but choices. There are no reductivist solutions to human ethics. Each choice is hard, and I expect to work hard to fathom out what seems to me to be good. I expect to be personally responsible for my choices. I expect you to be responsible for yours too, even if I disagree with what you decide.

So, the most reprehensible insult to God in my view is paternalism; the taking away of my God-given gift to make my own moral decisions and be responsible for them. No one else can decide the value of my life for me, when it has no further use, I will end it – with or without assistance. I will expect to have to explain myself to God. In my view, of course, those who do prevent moral choice are actually making moral choices for which they themselves will have to account.

There is no reason from Christianity why the law should prevent assisted dying, at least so far as those wanting to die are self-aware and sane. The presence of such law would allow a dignified end to those wanting to have one, without requiring others to die against their wishes.

John Cartwright. Rev John Cartwright is a Congregationalist Christian minister.