Saturday, May 13, 2006

The Tyranny of Choice

I spent some time yesterday watching on the BBC Parliament channel the procedings of the House of Lords. They were debating the second hearing of a bill on Assisted Dying. I did not see the whole debate by any means, which was more than seven hours long and had over eighty peers addressing the issue, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, together with other bishops and religious leaders.

I confess that I greatly appreciated both the manner and the quality of a discussion that eventually led to a fairly significant defeat of the bill, although this only delays its reintroduction for a few months. Interestingly, afterwards the BBC 24 Hour News channel did not then have a balanced discussion of what had happened, but gave six or seven minutes to the disappointed emoting of a woman whose brother had gone to Switzerland last year in order to bring an end to his own severely ill life.

While one cannot but be sympathetic with such agonies euthenasia is not the solution, for it raises far too many questions and creates far too many dilemmas for patients, families, physicians, the helping professions, and so forth. This was something that, as I listened, the proponents of this bill both on the floor of the chamber and in discussion on air, were conveniently overlooking or minimizing. Those making arguments for assisted dying constantly backed up their statements by arguing that an apparent overwhelming majority of the public think it a good idea, and, more important, people should be free to choose.

Our culture in the west is one that seems besotted with the notion of choice. Under every circumstance, it would appear, we must be as free to choose from as many options as possible, whether it be the model of car we drive, the brand of coffee we drink, or where and when we meet the Grim Reaper. The right to choose is now being as ferociously applied to the ending of life as it has for the past 30+ years been applied to the beginning of life. It is argued in both these cases that the right to choose says something about the dignity of life, I would contend that it says a great deal more about the desire for autonomy by the individual.

Euthenasia is a slippery one, because when dealing with the voluntary termination of life we are dealing with a complex set of issues. Like so many clergy I have sat with families who have been agonizing over the dying circumstances of a loved one, and the choices before them are often neither easy nor attractive -- and there is often that sense that people have been artificially kept alive beyond their capacity to cope.

However, those arguing for assisted dying in the House of Lords debate yesterday were speaking from the presupposition that a person's life belongs to them alone and, therefore, is something that they can choose to end for themselves if it becomes too much of a burden. Lord Joffe, the author of the Lords bill, wasn't too impressed by the arguments that had been put forward by religious leaders who sit in the Lords, although he rightly castigated some of the religious media for being crass.

In a society where everything has become a commodity choosing has acquired an almost tyrannical dimension. I have the right, it seems, to choose anything and everything I want, and boundaries of any kind are an unwarranted limitation on my freedoms. Putting off or putting on life, therefore, has become akin to putting off and putting on clothes at the beginning or ending of the day.

When a culture declares itself independent of God, then what is God's and is Godgiven becomes my own to do with as I like. Life is therefore something to be consumed as and when I want to do so, rather than something that is given to me by my Creator and of which I am a steward. Indeed, in the midst of this contemporary autonomy, the very notion of stewardship seems old-fashioned and out-of-place, especially if aligned with John Donne's noton that "no man is an island until himself."

The truth is that behind the arguments for euthenasia that I heard on the television from the Houses of Parliament there is ultimately a utilitarianism. When persons become a burden and cease to be useful, then they should be free to shuffle off their mortal coil and cease being a trouble to themselves and, if they have them, their loved ones.

There is little doubt that within the next few years the debate about assisted dying will be coming to an elected assembly near you, if it hasn't arrive already. The Oregonians, the Dutch, and the people of the Northern Territory of Australia, have already passed legislation allowing for controled euthenasia, and surely we are all going to be forced to engage this discussion as well.

Religious arguments were impatiently swept on one side by some in the Lords yesterday, but these really seem to be the primary bulwark that stand between us and practices that once established are open to the most blatant abuse. The questions that, perhaps, we ought to be exploring is what might be the legitimate limits of choice as well as what is the nature of life, and is it ours to do with as we please.

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