Deferring to the General Synod, which has decided that the Assisted Dying Bill is a Bill up with which it will not put, a bishop declared, ‘that’s the position to which we’re sticking’ (there have since been calls for a Royal Commission, presumably with the long grass in mind). The clarification was needed after an ex-archbish put the cat among the clerics by coming seriously unstuck. Writing in the Daily Mail – hullo? – Lord Carey has come out very publicly in support of assisted suicide, just before the Bill is to be debated in the Lords. Words like shocking rattled round the media faster than balls rattle at Wimbledon. Spigott, the BBC’s God correspondent, had to pinch and remind himself that Carey really was once Chief Pongo of the CoE. This wasn’t the moon faced oval headed conservative Carey bowling from the pavilion end, it was far more striking, as if he had blown his moral brains out. In the event, it turns out he may have shot himself not in the head but foot. Carey’s outing of his change of heart has electrified the established Church into a frenzy of opposition to assisted suicide.
Carey’s ‘I nail my heart to a box of barbiturates’ article is here. There is, as is to be expected, much soul-searching about souls, not to mention anguish about anguish and painful reflections on pain. Apparently the eclipse on the road to Damascus happened after Carey had contemplated the Nicklinson case. The sky went dark with suffering, Carey’s moral compass did a Bermuda Triangle number, and he came out pointing the other way. Instead of the hope of mercy, Carey now wants to provide the certainty of death. Somewhere in the Triangle, one of the Ten Commandments got if not redacted then seriously caveated: Thou Shall Not Kill (unless we say you can). Those who counter that assisting a suicide isn’t killing might do worse than reflect on whether handing a loaded revolver to a person hell-bent on killing themselves isn’t killing. Like hand grenades and horseshoes, it’s near enough.
Dr No is not a Christian (or a follower of any of the revealed Abrahamic religions) but as an outsider he gets the distinct impression that the one thing that isn’t up for debate in these religions is the authority of God. This authority is absolute, infinite and wise, in fact it is so absolute infinite and wise that is surpasses all human understanding. In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… And the Word was Thou Shall Not Kill. It’s one of the Ten Commandments, for Heaven’s sake, not Item 4.2.7 subsection (d) in a modern committee written guideline.
Be that as it may, and Dr No is aware there are times when killing is sanctioned by the Church, legitimate war being one, Carey’s foray into the valley of the shadow of death has pushed assisted suicide back into the spotlight. Online news articles and blog posts are gathering three and four figure numbers of comments. In places the comments generate more heat that a nuclear power station approaching meltdown. Of the lights to be seen glowing in the heat, the three familiar ones are present: autonomy (for: how dare you tell me not to kill myself, with assistance if necessary), sanctity (against: God’s Word, as above) and skids (against: the slippery slope, and it’s darker side, coercion). It is to the last Dr No turns today, to consider not the counter, but counters to the counter argument, if that makes sense.
The are two standard counters to the slippery slope argument. The first is the bad real world example of states that have in some shape or form legalised mercy killing, that is killing to end suffering, whether the act be done by the one not long for this world or another. The suggestion is that these states have not seen a run on killing, when in fact some have, significantly so. The Dutch, for example, have seen year on year numbers rise, from 4188 notified cases in 2012 from 2331 in 2008, the authorities are concerned that killing is now so commonplace that they can longer keep up with reviews to exclude foul play, and yet there are calls to extend the law to include those who are over 70 who are merely tired of life. If this isn’t killing with skids on, then Dr No doesn’t know what is.
The second standard counter argument is rather more obtuse, and relies on the observation that most people don’t kill themselves nowadays, so why should a change in the law to allow assisted suicide change the numbers substantially? The premise is that since most people don’t commit suicide, few will choose assisted suicide. This argument is fallacious, relying as it does on the idea that the addition of one word – assisted – makes no real difference. In fact it makes a huge difference. It changes, as Peter Cook might have said, the whole moral tone of the enterprise.
Solo suicide (which is legal, though almost always regrettable) is by its nature a solitary act. The moment we introduce assistance we fundamentally alter the dynamics: what was once solitary has now become a joint endeavour. Not one solitary will but two, indeed, under the Bill more than two, minds are at work, and therein lies the dark grease that eases the slide down the slope. Consider the old, the frail and the vulnerable, and those concerned lest they be a burden to their family. Today, by and large – of course there are exceptions – these folk must cross rivers of Stygian depths to kill themselves. The moral climate and illegal nature of assistance both stand as barriers. Now imagine instead the Bill enacted, the moral climate changed and assistance made legal. Willing helpers now line the banks of the Styx. Some of these willing helpers may be saints, perhaps even some with God in their heart, but the banks of the Styx are a place open to all. The legacy hungry, the care weary, and even the down-right nasty all have open access. What could be simpler than to pop Billie in a boat and suggest a little journey? Don’t for a moment think it won’t happen. Murdering for money may be hard to do, but a gentle shove from the banks of the Styx? Easy as falling off a log…