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CofI Primate argues against assisted dying

By Sarah Mac Donald - 12 August, 2014

Archbishop Richard Clarke, Church of Ireland Primate of All Ireland.

Archbishop Richard Clarke, Church of Ireland Primate of All Ireland.

The Church of Ireland Primate, Archbishop Richard Clarke, has taken the former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord George Carey, to task over his support for assisted dying.

Writing in the Belfast News Letter last Friday (8 August), Archbishop Clarke described Lord Carey’s change of mind on the issue as “perplexing”.

Referring to the current debate in Westminster parliament on assisted dying or euthanasia, the Church of Ireland Archbishop accused Lord Carey of losing sight of a fundamental Christian tenet – that our life on earth is not our property to do with as we choose.

He said much, therefore, depends on how we understand the significance of earthly life.

“If life is simply a personal commodity (and our culture does sadly encourage us to think of everything as a commodity that can be evaluated in terms of its usefulness to us) then life is disposable, entirely at the will of the individual ‘possessor’,” he warned.

But the Primate underlined that this is “clearly not the Christian perspective and, even for the non–believer, it is not an automatic understanding of the significance of life.”

“Human life, properly understood, is about our relationships, relationship with God and relationship with others on earth. Individualism – individual rights, individual comfort and individual control – has indeed become the cornerstone of much modern existence, but it is deeply dysfunctional. We belong to God and to one another,” he said.

Archbishop Clarke, who lost his wife five years ago to cancer, also highlighted that a danger accompanying any movement towards assisted dying is the “insidious pressure” it would bring to many people, at the most vulnerable time of their life.

“There are few people who do not hate the thought of being ‘a burden’ on those they love, and they might indeed believe that asking to die would be an act of generosity to those around.”

“Given also the costs of care for the terminally ill (which often falls on a family), unselfish people might well believe that they owe it to their families not to waste the money that they had hoped to leave for loved ones, on their continued care.”

“This is where human relationships, and the certainty of human love and support that accompany those relationships, are so crucial for those who are facing the end of earthly life.”

The Archbishop of Armagh regretted that the hospice movement, “where people are wonderfully encouraged to live life as fully as is practicable to the last, should be virtually starved of public money and should hence have to devote so much energy and effort simply to survive financially.”

“Let no–one ever take a casual or unfeeling attitude to those who are suffering in terminal illness, over however long or short a period. Being helpless and utterly dependent on others at the close of an earthly life is a sad burden for all involved.”

Referring to his own personal life, the leader of the Anglican Church in Ireland said, “Within my own life, I do have some experience of this in the death of my own wife from cancer, but this does not permit me to pontificate.”

“I do however believe that if we can bring ourselves to believe that all life is a gift of God, then the end of an earthly life can truly be more about helping others to live than helping them to die.”

He said the discussion on assisted dying should not be allowed to degenerate into a faith v non–faith argument.

According to Archbishop Clarke, for the Christian believer, life on earth is a gift of God – a wholly unearned gift from start to finish – and the conclusion of earthly life is not the end of our life with God.

“We should however be humble enough to acknowledge that for many humanists (who have no such belief in God) life is nevertheless something mysterious and sacred, and not simply our ‘possession’.”

He also warned that it may be tempting to imagine that the current debate on assisted dying is a matter that will not transfer to Ireland in the foreseeable future. “This would be unwise in the extreme,” he stated.

“The discussion is already well underway here, at dinner tables if not yet in council rooms. It is crucial that none of us should not be so naïve as to imagine that this is someone else’s debate.”

“We must therefore be ready to take the arguments on assisted dying seriously, and we should certainly never be quick to propound simple answers that will sound merely heartless in the face of human suffering.”

“We ought to make sense not simply to ourselves, but to others who do not share our certainties.”

“We need also to understand an important moral distinction between pointless and painful medical intervention on those who are undeniably reaching the end of their lives, and active clinical assistance to end life.”

“Medical non–intervention in some circumstances simply allows nature to take its merciful course, and it is difficult to argue with moral force against this. Direct intervention to end life is another matter,” Archbishop Clarke stated.

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