There is one question which has haunted and shaped society for thousands of years. It underlies all human relationships. It underlies all ethical decisions. The question is: 'Am I my brother's keeper?' The answering of that question has led, throughout history, to the righting of major injustices, like the abolition of the slave trade. But the usual answer to that archetypal question may be about to be rewritten in the United Kingdom. The answer 'yes' is about to be replaced by the answer 'no'.
Let me put it another way: 'Can I be my brother's killer?' For thousands of years the answer has been 'no'; but in legal terms, in the UK, the answer 'yes' is being seriously proposed: 'Yes, you may kill your brother in certain defined circumstances'.
When euthanasia was considered by a House of Lords Select Committee in 1993-4, it said this:
... society's prohibition of intentional killing [is] a prohibition which is the cornerstone of law and social relationships. It protects each one of us impartially, embodying the belief that all are equal.
Those are solemn and profound words. They are now under attack philosophically; listen to these words from Professor John Harris of Manchester University about our ability to make choices and the freedom to choose between competing conceptions of how to live:
... it is only by the exercise of autonomy that our lives become in any real sense our own. The ending of our lives determines life's final shape and meaning, both for ourselves and in the eyes of others. When we are denied control of the end of our lives, we are denied autonomy.
It is an appealing and seductive argument, and goes with the grain of our society:
It's my life and I can do what I want with it ...
or, if you prefer Frank Sinatra's kitsch version:
I did it my way.
But a moment's thought will reveal that, actually, the choices I make as an individual impinge on others - that, ultimately, is why we have laws, to enable us to decide who has the priority or what is just. In the case of euthanasia, this Bill, proposed by Lord Joffe, if passed, would give any one of us the right (in given circumstances) to demand and require that another human being kills us. (In the interests of fairness, I must also point out that in the 'assisted suicide' part of the Bill, what I would have the right to demand and require is that someone should provide me with the means by which I could kill myself.) The major question about the fundamental principle of the Bill, personal autonomy, is whether this is a philosophically and morally secure basis on which society can operate. I do not believe it is.
A more nuanced version of the personal autonomy argument, and one which I strongly support, is to talk of 'principled autonomy' in which:
… the rights of an individual always go hand in hand with the duty of the individual to other people. [Professor Robin Gill]
It was a point which was made very powerfully by the Archbishop of Canterbury in an article (entitled 'Does a right to assisted death entail a responsibility on others to kill?') in The Times on 20th January 2005.
· I believe the Bill is profoundly flawed because it strikes at the heart of the moral basis which prohibits intentional killing.
· I believe the Bill, as it stands, is profoundly flawed on philosophical grounds.
At the 1998 Lambeth Conference, we spelt out what we described as five bedrock principles which should undergird all discussion of euthanasia. The principles are these:
1. Life is God-given and therefore has intrinsic sanctity, significance and worth.
2. Human beings are in relationship with the created order - a relationship characterised by such words as respect, enjoyment and responsibility.
3. Human beings, while flawed by sin, nevertheless have the capacity to make free and responsible moral choices.
4. Human meaning and purpose are found in our relationship with God, in the exercise of freedom, critical...
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