Thou shalt not kill

Canon Michael Hull, our Assistant Priest, writes:

The Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults (Scotland) Bill, drafted by Liam McArthur MSP, is likely to be debated in the Autumn and voted upon in the New Year. This is the third time the issue of suicide with assistance comes to Holyrood. The End of Life Assistance Bill was rejected in 2010; the Assisted Suicide Bill was rejected in 2015. The latest Bill proposes that ‘a terminally ill adult who is eligible may, on request, be lawfully provided with assistance to end their own life’. The Bill says nothing about the lawfulness of suicide or terminally ill persons per se because attempting suicide is not unlawful in Scotland, but aiding a suicide surely is. To assist a suicide is to risk prosecution for murder, culpable homicide or an offence under the Misuse of Drugs Act 1971. Consequently, the common modifier in the Bills is ‘assist’. Again, the Bill offers no protection for terminally ill adults, but only for those who would assist them in their suicides by protecting such assistants from criminal and civil prosecution. It is a license to kill the terminally ill, albeit with their consent.

Two ethical questions arise. First, may one ethically attempt suicide? Second, may one ethically assist a suicide? For Christians, as I see it, the answer to the first question is assuredly ‘no’, regardless of contemporary criminal law, and the same is true of the second. Holy Scripture teaches us that our lives are precious gifts from God in whose image and likeness we are made. We are the stewards of our lives. We are neither creators nor owners (Gen. 1.26–27; 5.1) of our lives. To take human life is repugnant to God (Gen. 4.8–10; 9.5–6). God commands us directly not to kill (Exod. 20.13; Deut. 5.17). 

The Bill, oddly, mentions neither anguish, misery, pain, nor quality of life (physical or psychological). It defines terminally ill people as those who ‘have an advanced and progressive disease, illness or condition from which they are unable to recover and that can reasonably be expected to cause their premature death’ (sec. 2). This is an extraordinarily broad definition. In one sense, are we not all terminally ill? From the moment of conception, we begin to die; we do not know what life has in store for us; and we do not know when we will die, prematurely or not. In another sense, some persons are sick and vulnerable with woefully short life expectancies and illnesses with intense physical or mental suffering. They need the finest in palliative care to assuage their travails until their natural lives end by disease or medication administered to alleviate their suffering. God is close to them in every moment of their distress (Psalm 56; Romans 8).

A license to kill anyone, especially the sick and vulnerable (with or without their consent), is ethically unjustifiable. Yet this Bill would allow a ‘registered medical practitioner or an authorised health professional’ to ‘provide a terminally ill adult with an approved substance with which the adult may end their own life’ (sec. 15). The verbal engineering is pernicious. How is giving poison to the sick the charge of a registered medical practitioner or an authorised health professional when the intended outcome is neither medicinal nor healthy, but deadly? The Hippocratic Oath, humanity’s oldest statement of medical ethics, would have medics help the sick and not harm them. To intentionally assist in killing them is unconscionable. It is currently unlawful to do so, and it should remain so.

What needs to change is the way we support terminally ill people, especially those whose terminal illnesses include intense suffering of body and mind. Terminally ill lives are to be accorded the human dignity of every life. We are to cherish their earthly lives given them by God until God takes them. The exceptional circumstances (no one’s circumstances are the same as another’s) and the difficult decisions they face cry out for the provision of holistic end-of-life and hospice care, not for the provision of suicide and killing under the guise of treatment. 

Our responsibility as Christians is to help society protect the weak and the vulnerable, among whom are counted those with dire prognoses who are not long for this world and who remain ‘fearfully and wonderfully made’ in their sicknesses (Psalm 139). We must work to ensure that they do not fear us deserting them in their time of need by disrespecting their God-given dignity or intentionally terminating their lives. The upcoming debate and vote around the Assisted Dying for Terminally Ill Adults (Scotland) Bill is a watershed moment for Christians to aid society in doing right and seeking justice for the terminally ill, and to oppose any license to kill them.

The Reverend Canon Professor Michael Hull has been an Assistant Priest at St Vincent’s since 2015. He is also the Principal of the Scottish Episcopal Institute.

St Vincent's Chapel, Edinburgh, the village church at the heart of the city.