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Dignity in life, dignity in death: Laurie Penny on euthanasia

Theological dogma should not dictate policy when it comes to assisted suicide.

It's not easy watching a man commit suicide on camera. The public uproar over the BBC documentary Choosing To Die, in which the author and Alzheimer's sufferer Sir Terry Pratchett visits the Dignitas euthanasia clinic in Switzerland, has reopened the debate over whether or not sufferers from terminal and chronic illness should be allowed to end their own lives. In the film, we watch Peter Smedley, a British sufferer from motor neurone disease, as he swallows the killing draught; he coughs as he begins to fall asleep, and asks for water. The prim Dignitas "escort" refuses. His wife, the picture of pseudo-aristocratic dignity, holds his hand as his head begins to drop to his chest. Sir Terry sits opposite the Smedleys as they say goodbye, swallowing obvious tears. It is terribly hard to watch.

It is no harder, however, than it would be to watch a man die slowly and in pain, longing for release. Sir Terry, whose own encroaching mortality is a constant, ominous presence in the programme, concludes with wobbling lip that this was a good death -- "When we think of all the ways people can die, that would count as a result" -- and that the creepy little blue house on the Swiss industrial estate where so many come to die exists for a good reason. It is difficult not to take his point, especially when one sees how rigorous and exhausting are the checks for fitness of mind and non-coercion run by the clinic. With an ageing population suffering increasingly from protracted, agonising end-of-life conditions, now would seem precisely the time for an adult debate about assisted dying. It seems likely, however, that the debate will be messy, drawn-out and painful.

Talking about suicide has always been taboo, even in journalism, a profession not generally known for tact and discretion. It is only 50 years since the practice was decriminalised in this country, and parts of the 1961 suicide act provide that, while you can no longer be sent to jail for surviving a suicide attempt, your friends and family can be imprisoned for up to 14 years if they are suspected of assisting a suicide -- even just for offering, like brave Mrs Smedley, a loving hand to hold at the end. There is something about this subject that repels rational debate. It sticks in the craw, disgorging reason. You can't help but feel that the reason nobody wants to ask the important questions about chosen death is that nobody really wants to hear the answers.

There is a very real fear that if we talk about this properly, we might reach a conclusion that we might not want to face: that, in some cases, taking one's own life is a sane and sensible thing to do. The term that commenters keep returning to is "slippery slope": if we acknowledge that self-murder might be acceptable for the terminally ill, what about the chronically ill? What about the mentally ill? What about those who are in perfect physical health but, like a small minority of Dignitas clients, are simply "weary of life"? If everyone could die in a time and place of their choosing, might we not see the numbers of suicides rise from current averages of just over 5,000 a year to tens or hundreds of thousands, many of them young people with everything to live for?

This is a legitimate fear. At 24, I have lost several friends to suicide. I have seen many more young people with big lives ahead of them attempt to end those lives. I have intervened personally in three suicide attempts, all of them involving young adults under 22. Those incidents were frightening, painful and heartbreaking for everyone involved. Hundreds of children and young people commit suicide every year in Britain and, according to the Samaritans and Barnados, that number is rising. I believe, like the Dignitas director, Ludwig Minelli, that the "right to self-determination" includes the right to control the manner of your death as far as possible, but the thought that it might somehow become acceptable for anyone simply to give up on life genuinely chills me.

That is not, however, what a service like Dignitas is offering. Dignitas, in fact, appears to offer a civilised solution to a problem which has dogged society, not to mention the medical profession, for centuries -- injecting a merciful dose of procedural oversight into a shadowy world of unspoken pain and moral dilemma, providing one has the £10,000 to cover the clinic's costs.

The key statistic is that 70 per cent of those who make enquiries with Dignitas never call back. The knowledge that the option of a quick and painless end is there seems, in fact, to give many people the strength to carry on. There is cause to believe that oversight and legitimacy in the field of euthanasia might, in fact, reduce the number of tragic suicides, by giving desperate people back a sense of control over the end of their lives. As Nietzsche observed, the thought of suicide, considered rationally, may well be "a powerful solace: by means of it one gets through many a bad night."

We live, for now, in a society where theological dogma does not dictate policy, but the notion of suicide as a "sin" persists. The reasons behind religious proselytising against suicide -- which comes with the not insignificant metaphysical threat of hell -- are benign enough for anyone who believes that God and law can and should dictate the lives of human beings. There is, however, also a powerful argument that the "sanctity" of life is worth less if the individual living that life cannot determine its boundaries. There is an argument that a measure of formality, choice and control in death is no bad thing for a person living out their last days in pain and terror. These are arguments that, if we wish to live in a truly civilised society, we will soon collectively be obliged to consider.

Rather than consider them, however, much of the response to this documentary and the difficult issues it raises, particularly on the Christian right, has focused on the possibility of a second "slippery slope". The fear seems to be that if euthanasia were not taboo, the elderly and infirm might be encouraged to end their lives against their will, to spare their families and the state the burden of caring for them, despite the enormous bureaucracy already in place to prevent this from happening. The hypocrisy of this moral panic is unbelievable, when hospices and end-of-life care centres are facing funding cuts of 30 per cent, according to a report released in January.

The brutal truth is that we do not need to fear a world where the sick, disabled and terminally ill are denied support and treated as disposable. We are living in that world, right now.

On 10 June last year, Paul Reekie, a 48-year-old poet from Edinburgh, took his own life. Spread out on the table beside him, in place of a suicide note, were two letters: one informing him that his Incapacity Benefit had been stopped, and another informing him that his Housing Benefit had also been stopped. This government, expanding on the policies of the last, is currently forcing over a million sick and disabled people to undergo a work capability assessment performed by a private company, Atos Origin, with a £300m mandate to deny benefits to hundreds of thousands of claimants. As a result of these tests, patients in the final stages of cancer have been refused the pittance of state support that was supposed to make the end of their lives bearable.

This month, top mental health charities warned the government that the tests were already causing desperate claimants to take their own lives, and that more suicides can be expected if the scheme continues. Someone in government appears already to have accepted and made provisions for this eventuality, distributing handy suicide guidelines to staff at call-centres dealing with benefit claims. The callousness with which this is being done should shock us; it should shock us far more than as-yet-abstract idea of state-sanctioned euthanasia. Instead, we nod along as ministers and tabloid headlines inform us that these people are not worth the good money we could be pumping into tax relief for the banking system.

We need no longer fear a world where society and the state cannot be bothered to expend time and money looking after the sick, the dying and the unprofitable. We are already living in that world. We are halfway down the slippery slope, clutching for handholds of humanity. If we truly believe that all human life is precious, if we truly believe in dignity in life and in death, we should start by taking an honest look at the slow, unmerciful slaughter of a welfare state which, while ailing, has so much more to give - and considering what that says about all of us.

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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What kind of Christian is Theresa May?

And why aren’t we questioning the vicar’s daughter on how her faith influences her politics?

“It is part of me. It is part of who I am and therefore how I approach things,” Theresa May told Kirsty Young when asked about her faith on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs in November 2014. “I think it’s right that we don’t sort of flaunt these things here in British politics but it is a part of me, it’s there, and it obviously helps to frame my thinking.”

The daughter of a Church of England vicar, Rev. Hubert Brasier, May grew up an active Christian in Oxfordshire. She was so involved in parish life that she even taught some Sunday school classes. She goes on in the Desert Island Discs interview to choose the hymn When I Survey the Wondrous Cross sung by a chapel congregation, and recalls being alone in church with her parents, kneeling and singing together.

Despite her intense attachment to local CofE life, Theresa May’s role as a Christian in politics is defined more by her unwillingness to “flaunt” (in her words) her faith.

Perhaps this is partly why, as a Christian, May avoided the scrutiny directed at Lib Dem leader and evangelical Christian Tim Farron over the past week of his stance on homosexuality and abortion.

As Farron wriggled – first saying he didn’t want to make “theological pronouncements” on whether or not being gay is a sin (and then, days later, announcing that it isn’t) – May’s critics scratched their heads about why her voting record on such matters isn’t in the media spotlight.

She has a socially conservative voting record when it comes to such subjects. As the journalist and activist Owen Jones points out, she has voted against equalising the age of consent, repealing Section 28, and gay adoption (twice).

Although her more recent record on gay rights is slightly better than Farron’s – she voted in favour of same-sex marriage throughout the process, and while Farron voted against the Equality Act Sexual Orientation Regulations in 2007 (the legislation obliging bed and breakfast owners and wedding cake makers, etc, not to discriminate against gay people), May simply didn’t attend.

May has also voted for the ban on sex-selective abortions, for reducing the abortion limit to 20 weeks, abstained on three-parent babies, and against legalising assisted suicide.

“Looking at how she’s voted, it’s a slightly socially conservative position,” says Nick Spencer, Research Director of the religion and society think tank Theos. “That matches with her generally slightly more economically conservative, or non-liberal, position. But she’s not taking those views off pages of scripture or a theology textbook. What her Christianity does is orient her just slightly away from economic and social liberalism.”

Spencer has analysed how May’s faith affects her politics in his book called The Mighty and the Almighty: How Political Leaders Do God, published over Easter this year. He found that her brand of Christianity underpinned “the sense of mutual rights and responsibilities, and exercising those responsibilities through practical service”.

May’s father was an Anglo-Catholic, and Spencer points out that this tradition has roots in the Christian socialist tradition in the early 20th century. A world away from the late Victorian Methodism that fellow Christian Margaret Thatcher was raised with. “That brought with it a package of independence, hard work, probity, and economic prudence. They’re the values you’d get from a good old Gladstonian Liberal. Very different from May.”

Spencer believes May’s faith focuses her on a spirit of citizenship and communitarian values – in contrast to Thatcher proselytising the virtues of individualism during her premiership.

Cradle Christian

A big difference between May and Farron’s Christianity is that May is neither a convert nor an evangelical.

“She’s a cradle Christian, it’s deep in her bloodstream,” notes Spencer. “That means you’re very unlikely to find a command-and-control type role there, it’s not as if her faith’s going to point her in a single direction. She’s not a particularly ideological politician – it’s given her a groundwork and foundation on which her politics is built.”

This approach appears to be far more acceptable in the eyes of the public than Farron’s self-described “theological pronouncements”.  May is known to be a very private politician who keeps her personal life, including her ideas about faith, out of the headlines.

“I don’t think she has to show off, or join in, she just does it; she goes to church,” as her former cabinet colleague Cheryl Gillan put it simply to May’s biographer Rosa Prince.

The voters’ view

It’s this kind of Christianity – quiet but present, part of the fabric without imposing itself – that chimes most with British voters.

“In this country, given our history and the nature of the established Church, it's something that people recognise and understand even if they don't do it themselves,” says Katie Harrison, Director of the Faith Research Centre at polling company ComRes. “Whether or not it’s as active as it used to be, lots of people see it as a nice thing to have, and they understand a politician who talks warmly about those things. That’s probably a widely-held view.”

Although church and Sunday school attendance is falling (about 13 per cent say they regularly attend Christian religious services, aside from weddings and funerals), most current surveys of the British population find that about half still identify as Christian. And ComRes polling in January 2017 found that 52 per cent of people think it’s important that UK politicians and policy-makers have a good understanding of religion in the UK.

Perhaps this is why May, when asked by The Sunday Times last year how she makes tough decisions, felt able to mention her Christianity:  “There is something in terms of faith, I am a practising member of the Church of England and so forth, that lies behind what I do.”

“I don’t think we’re likely to react hysterically or with paranoid fear if our politicians start talking about their faith,” reflects Spencer. “What we don’t like is if they start ‘preaching’ about it.”

“Don’t do God”

So if May can speak about her personal faith, why was the nation so squeamish when Tony Blair did the same thing? Notoriously, the former Labour leader spoke so frankly about his religion when Prime Minister that his spin doctor Alastair Campbell warned: “We don’t do God.” Some of Blair’s critics accuse him of being driven to the Iraq war by his faith.

Although Blair’s faith is treated as the “watershed” of British society no longer finding public displays of religion acceptable, Spencer believes Blair’s problem was an unusual one. Like Farron, he was a convert. He famously converted to Catholicism as an adult (and by doing so after his resignation, side-stepped the question of a Catholic Prime Minister). Farron was baptised at 21. The British public is more comfortable with a leader who is culturally Christian than one who came to religion in their adulthood, who are subjected to more scrutiny.

That’s why Gordon Brown, David Cameron and Theresa May can get away with talking about their faith, according to Spencer. “Brown, a much more cultural Presbyterian, used a lot of Biblical language. Cameron talked about it all the time – but he was able to do so because he had a vague, cultural, undogmatic Anglicanism,” he tells me. “And May holds it at arm’s length and talks about being a clergyman’s daughter, in the same way Brown talked about his father’s moral compass.”

This doesn’t stop May’s hard Brexit and non-liberal domestic policy jarring with her Christian values, however. According to Harrison’s polling, Christian voters’ priorities lie in social justice, and tackling poverty at home and overseas – in contrast with the general population’s preoccupations.

Polling from 2015 (pre-Brexit, granted) found that practising Christians stated more concern about social justice (27 per cent) than immigration (14 per cent). When entering No 10, May put herself “squarely at the service of ordinary working-class people”. Perhaps it’s time for her to practise what she preaches.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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