Religion has owned the right to die for centuries. The common religious package of ‘a good life’ as an access to heaven is scattered across all structured belief systems in one form or another and is the power base by which religion controls, or “inspires” its followers. So it comes as no surprise that Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury and church leaders from other faiths recently announced their objection to the Assisted Dying Bill being pursued in the UK’s House of Commons.
The bill allows patients who have an estimated 6 months to live, and who have a “clear and settled intention” to end their lives, to do so with a lethal dose of drugs. Previously, an assessment would need to be completed by two doctors and a family court judge to agree that a patient’s decision was free from coercion and that the medical diagnosis was satisfactory. A healthcare professional would then have to be present while the patient administered the lethal injection themselves.
Society has a long history of groups controlling the passage through life with the promise of heaven. In the past this had more meaning. A terribly hard life of toil, disease and famine laid a fertile ground for the belief in something better to come in heaven. But as life has become more abundant and comfortable in the West, the concept of heaven has become less potent. In parallel to this medicine has become more capable, permitting a longer, more comfortable life.
Religion and medicine enjoy the influence they have over people. Religious guidance around a ‘good life’ and the subsequent reward for that in heaven, has given it enormous influence over our daily lives with endless, dos and don’ts. This has also given it explicit authority over the end of life and the transition to the afterlife in heaven. In religion it is not the right of the individual to say how they die.
Alternatively, medicine has promised us a longer life - keeping us alive in comfort to a ripe old age and even, on some occasions, beyond what is potentially sensible. The diagnosis of death is often theirs to give, through the endless mechanisms and the strict definition of medical death. Generally in hospitals it is not the right of the individual to say when or how they die.
Both groups have benefitted from controlling the ending of life - the most important closure experience we have. With the Assisted Dying Bill individuals might now take control of their own death by selecting the timing and the meaning of the end of their life. The ones who are losing out are the traditions of religion and medicine, not those individuals whom are choosing to die.