Asking questions of life and death

Image: Getty Images
Image: Getty Images
The current euthanasia debate poses two key questions, says Ian Harris. Where does respect for life lie? And what does love require? 

It was once the custom in some royal precincts for courtiers to address their monarch: "Oh King, live for ever!" That was never going to happen, and millennia later George Bernard Shaw urged the opposite: "Don't try to live for ever. You won't succeed."

Some Americans, however, do aspire to live forever. They arrange for their bodies to be frozen, hoping that one day a way will be found to bring them back to life. Cloning may also offer possibilities for restoring the body, though not necessarily the full identity, to prolong their presence on the planet beyond a single lifetime.

So though "Fred Smith, live for ever" may appeal to the vanity of the wealthy, Shaw holds the commonsense end of the spectrum. Coming to terms with the fact that one day we will die is a mark of health and maturity.

The church has traditionally found another way of assuring people that death is not the last stop on life's journey. It assured those within its fold that they would live beyond death in the bliss of heaven. Those who didn't measure up would still live on, but in the agony of hell. The Catholic Church softened the starkness of these alternatives by adding purgatory, which gave the middling-bad a chance to clean up and move upstairs. In the premodern understanding of a three-tier universe comprising heaven, earth and hell, that made good sense.

Such ideas are still around, but they are fading fast as Christian thinking adjusts to the realisation that the only setting for the great questions of life and death lies right in the midst of our secular world.

Accepting that brings huge gains. The old formula had the effect of diminishing the value of life on earth, by suggesting that it is only the prelude to one's true and eternal destiny in heaven. Abandoning hope of an after-life adds focus and value to this life - there's nothing else, so let's make the most of it! And how we make the most of it is the stuff of religion.

Given all that, what are we to make of the End-of-Life Choice Bill, currently making its way through Parliament's select committee process? After all, death is creeping (or maybe galloping) towards us all.

It seems to me essential to avoid blanket rules such as "hastening death is never an option", or "patients have the right to die on demand". The key questions are rather: Where does respect for life lie? And what does love, when focused unwaveringly on the true well-being of another, require for this person in these circumstances at this time?

Some will answer that respect shows best in the determination to stay alive - or keep someone else alive - for as long as possible and at any cost.

In the Christian view, however, there's more to human life than biological existence. When Jesus said "I have come in order that you may have life in all its fullness," he was pointing to something more than stretching out our days indefinitely. He was talking about life with meaning and purpose, lived in trust and hope. That kind of life is infinitely more than an existence made possible only by machines or drugs that can keep the body ticking over long after consciousness and personality have eroded away.

That's where the second question cuts in: Does love really require such a fate? To which a wholesome view of death as the natural rounding-off of life answers emphatically: "Not at all!" To fulfil our destiny as human beings, there comes a time to take leave of life. Indeed, the last positive contribution we can make to an over-populated planet is to make way gracefully for future generations.

Jesus' emphasis on the fullness of life rather than merely prolonging it has profound implications for public health policy. This is because, as more and more people live longer and longer, questions about priorities and resourcing will inevitably become sharper and more urgent. One medical ethicist says: "Where we can prolong the lives of 120,000 people by one month (say with a new cancer drug) or 1000 people by 10 years (say with dialysis), we should do the latter".

Multiply such choices a hundredfold and it becomes clear that the guiding principle of the sanctity of life will increasingly be upheld not by prolonging life beyond any possibility of hope, but in helping people to live well as long as they draw breath, and then to die well.

Ian Harris is a journalist and commentator.


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