Our parish priest has been reminding us all to write to members of the Lords to make known our objections to the assisted suicide bill which Labour MP Rob Marris will introduce to the House of Commons on September 11.
There are very good reasons to oppose this proposed legislation, which have been aired many times in the Christian media: it would make sick people more vulnerable; it would turn doctors and nurses into killers; it would lead to a slippery slope; hard cases make bad law and so on. We must defend the principle of the right to life on behalf of those who can’t speak for themselves. But even as I type these words I am aware that the debate needs to be deepened.
I have just read a book that could almost be a text book for those supporting the Marris Bill: The Last Act of Love by Cathy Rentzenbrink. Although not strictly about assisted suicide for those who ask for it (under certain protocols,) it would inevitably be part of the wider net that would draw in all other heartbreaking and insoluble cases if the Marris Bill were to become law. I am thinking of people said to be in a “Persistent Vegetative State” (PVS), as it is called.
Cathy Rentzenbrink’s brother, Matty, a bright and personable boy, was knocked down by a car one evening when, aged 16, he was walking home with friends. He suffered devastating head injuries, fell into a coma and, essentially, never woke up again. But because of medical expertise and the devoted love of his parents (who adapted their house for his needs, then brought him home when the hospital could do no more, and nursed him themselves for five years), Matty didn’t die.
Finally he was moved to an excellent small care home near where his family lived. But, after eight years of the huge strain they had endured, his parents and sister felt they couldn’t go on and that, as his mother wrote later in an affidavit, “Matthew would never want to be kept alive in his pitiable and hopeless condition.” They agreed with the care home that he wouldn’t be given antibiotics if he got another infection (these were frequent over the years, as were epileptic fits), so that he could die naturally. But despite his total incapacity, his body always managed to fight these off.
So his parents and sister did what they felt, as the title of the book suggests, was a “last act of love”. They petitioned the High Court for Matty’s nutrition and hydration to be withdrawn. Following the precedent of the Tony Bland case, the court agreed. He was brought home from his nursing home to die. The parents, who oversaw the dying, were told it was “a very peaceful process, with full coma occurring after a few days”. In fact, the whole process took 13 long, harrowing days.
Matty’s sister writes, “There are kinder ways to bring life to an end than starving someone to death.” This is where tragic cases like that of Matty need to be part of the debate – as they would become part of the wider remit of the Marris Bill if it became law. Starving someone to death is so obviously appalling that “kinder”, quicker ways would become a routine part of the “dying with dignity” process if carers petitioned for it.
Two things about this particularly sad case made me reflect: before modern medicine developed the capacity to keep people alive against enormous odds, those like Matty would have died almost immediately. Trauma and infection would have seen to that. Indeed, the doctor who first tended Matty in intensive care after the accident, told the family, “We’ve saved your son’s life … we don’t know yet whether that was the right thing to do.” The family, with no religious beliefs to sustain them in their long agony, finally decided it was the wrong thing and that “there are fates worse than death”. Doctors have become both miracle-workers and potential killers at the same time; this puts them in an impossible position.
The second thing follows from the first: in a post-Christian society, where most people are practical atheists, how, faced by medicine’s capacity to trump death in cases like Matty’s, can we persuade them of his “right to life” when the redemptive aspect of suffering is meaningless to them? To our opponents – as I discovered when I joined a pro-life group outside the House of Lords last year when the Falconer Bill was being debated – we can appear smug, determined to preach an inflexible moral principle that (to them) is the opposite of loving.
In this debate we need to show the practical side of Christian love. Otherwise we will never win the argument. I was struck by this thought when reading Oliver Sacks’ recent autobiography, On The Move. Sacks, a famous neurologist, wrote the best-seller, Awakenings, about his patients who had survived for several decades after they had been struck down by the widespread encephalitis epidemic of the 1920s. An atheist, he contrasted the “mechanical and medical care” often provided by the New York nursing homes where these long-stay patients lived, “warehoused together”, to the residential homes run by the Little Sisters of the Poor where they got “the best care in the world”.
These homes, Sacks writes, were “about life – living the fullest, most meaningful life possible.” The Sisters’ religion, he observed, “is central but not mandatory.” He noted the Sisters’ “great religious devotion” and concluded that “it is difficult to image such a level of care without such a deep dedication. [They] inspire me and I love going to their residences”.
It’s a tall order – but it is the example of people like the Little Sisters who provide the best answer to Rob Marris’s bill.