Death is part of our human experience

There are times when it is better to "let nature take its course".

The debate around assisted dying is undoubtedly a difficult and sensitive one. However, Nelson Jones's recent blog, conflating as it did two very different issues, served only to muddy the waters.

In the piece, Jones sought to argue that because, in certain situations, a clinical decision is made by medical personnel not to attempt resuscitation of the patient, this is essentially equivalent to the medical profession making the decision to end the life of a vulnerable person. It would be more honest, Jones argued, to allow the choice of when their life should end to be made by the patient.

There can be little doubt that medical technology is now such that we can artificially prolong the lives of people through interventions which are at times inappropriate. However, in our death-denying culture, there are times when we need to remember that death is a part of our human experience, and that not every death is the result of a medical failure. There are times when the better decision is to let go, to step back and “let nature take its course”. This is the purpose of the “do not attempt resuscitation” (DNAR) decision: that further medical intervention would be futile and of no benefit to the patient.

However, the withholding or withdrawing of medical treatment differs fundamentally from the deliberate ending of life. The Church of Scotland is active in many projects offering care, comfort and support to the vulnerable in many practical ways. We therefore find the prospect of legislation allowing assisted dying to be deeply concerning, as it has the potential to undermine focus on the care and comfort of all as they move through the last stages of life- especially those who are placed in a vulnerable position as a result of age, incapacity or other circumstance.

While personal autonomy is indeed an important issue, it is a dangerous fallacy to believe that a person can act independently of all others, with their actions having no consequences for anybody else. Interpersonal relationships are vital: life is lived and death experienced as part of community. Assisted suicide cannot be a personal choice because it will inevitably effect everyone, and how tragic if those most vulnerable in our communities begin to feel that their lives are somehow less worth our resources. What a tragically bleak view of human life- and how far removed from the call of the church to show love and concern, compassion and support for all around us.

Death, as a natural process, cannot be avoided: despite the inevitable sadness involved in saying farewell to a loved one, emphasis should be placed on ensuring that all participants in the process experience as fulfilled and comfortable a final journey as possible.

We would emphasise the need for all aspects of care to be improved; there is concern, however, that assisted dying legalisation will undermine, rather than enhance, other aspects of end of life care and the manner in which society values every human being. Clearly it would be a step too far if vulnerable patients felt pressured to opt for assisted dying because of a lack of resources to give them an acceptable quality of life in their last months.

In common with many people of faith, the Church of Scotland would affirm that the worth and dignity of every human life needs to be emphasised and celebrated. Indeed, the Gospel of Jesus Christ which the Church of Scotland seeks to live out emphasises the value and worth of all human life, no matter the circumstances. Any legislation to bring about the deliberate ending of a human life would be a sea-change in how we perceive one another. Society places a prohibition on the killing of others (because we understand the profound commonality of life): this is a line which we must not cross.

Rev Sally Foster-Fulton is Convener of the Church and Society Council of the Church of Scotland, and is Assistant Minster of Dunblane Cathedral. For further information on the work of the Church and Society Council, see their website.

Death is a natural process. Photograph: Getty Images
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder