A dignified debate about dying

The hostility with which some religious conservatives attacked Anglican Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu’s views on assisted dying is saddening. Whether one agrees with the Arch or not, Tutu has put the important question back on the agenda.

Tutu is not alone in this. In Britain, as proposed assisted dying legislation goes before Parliament, former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey has – like Tutu – weighed in on the side of ‘liberals’. And Carey is a more conservative Anglican than Tutu. In a survey conducted among churchgoers in Britain, the majority – including Catholics – are overwhelmingly in favour of accepting the possibility of euthanasia and physician assisted suicide. Have our two retired Anglican primates gone ‘soft’ on liberal modernity? Have Christians in Britain also been ‘contaminated’ by secularism? Have British Catholics not been properly catechised? Or is something else happening?

A careful reading of traditional Catholic moral theology might clarify things. It is true that the Church strongly opposes the direct killing of the innocent. This would seem to rule out the possibility of euthanasia.  The Church also opposes suicide, including all forms of assisted suicide.  They are supported by the law in almost all countries, as well as the World Medical Association.

However, it is also Catholic teaching that no extraordinary means are required to keep someone alive who is terminally ill with no hope of recovery. Defining extraordinary means is hard because it is scientifically and context dependent. What was 150 years ago a radical treatment, e.g. blood transfusion, is now quite ordinary. It is also context dependent: a modern, technologically sophisticated health service is available in some places, but not everywhere. It is conceivable that what is ordinary in some hospitals is extraordinary in others. In a perfect world everyone would have access to all the care they need. It is something we should aspire to – but we don’t live in this perfect world. Not yet.

It is also morally permissible for a patient to request the withholding of treatment in situations where it might delay the inevitable. Many countries accept ‘living wills’ and advanced directives of a patient where she might stipulate the point at which she considers further treatment with no hope of success futile and excessive. This it seems fits well with the Catholic principle of ‘no extraordinary means’ and with the teaching that we should take seriously the opinions of medical professionals in medical scientific matters.

Drawing on the classic moral doctrine of double effect, it is also conceivable that a terminally ill patient might be given painkiller medication even if it risks shortening his life, so long as the intention is to relieve pain and not to kill. Administering painkillers is morally neutral and in this case a good; the intention to relieve pain is good; if a person dies as a result, this is not direct killing but a side effect of these actions. These teachings come from Pope Pius XII in the 1950s – not a misguided radical theologian.

Desmond Tutu and George Carey have done the Church a service in challenging us to think more clearly about death and dying with dignity. They deserve at the very least a dignified and reasoned response.

Fr Anthony Egan SJ

Fr Anthony Egan SJ (born Cape Town 1966; entered the Jesuits 1990; ordained 2002) has taught, full-time or part-time, at St Augustine College of South Africa, St John Vianney Seminary, Fordham University (on sabbatical) and the University of the Witwatersrand. The author/co-author of a number of books, book chapters, academic and popular articles, he is a correspondent for America magazine, a contributor to Worldwide and writes for spotlight.africa. He is also a commentator on local and international radio and television. He is an Honorary Fellow of the Helen Suzman Foundation. Extramural interests include Science Fiction, Theatre, Art and creative writing, including poetry.

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