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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An Irish Sea border – and 3 other tricky options for Northern Ireland after Brexit

There is no easy option for Northern Ireland after Brexit. 

Deciding on post-Brexit border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is becoming an issue for which the phrase "the devil is in the detail" could have been coined. Finding a satisfactory solution that delivers a border flexible enough not to damage international trade and commerce and doesn’t undermine the spirit, or the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement settlement is foxing Whitehall’s brightest.

The dial seemed to have settled on David Davis’s suggestion that there could be a "digital border" with security cameras and pre-registered cargo as a preferred alternative to a "hard border" replete with checkpoints and watchtowers.

However the Brexit secretary’s suggestion has been scotched by the new Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, who says electronic solutions are "not going to work". Today’s Times quotes him saying that "any barrier or border on the island of Ireland in my view risks undermining a very hard-won peace process" and that there is a need to ensure the "free movement of people and goods and services and livelihoods".

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has made dealing with the Irish border question one of his top three priorities before discussions on trade deals can begin. British ministers are going to have to make-up their minds which one of four unpalatable options they are going to choose:

1. Hard border

The first is to ignore Dublin (and just about everybody in Northern Ireland for that matter) and institute a hard border along the 310-mile demarcation between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. Given it takes in fields, rivers and forests it’s pretty unenforceable without a Trump-style wall. More practically, it would devastate trade and free movement. Metaphorically, it would be a powerful symbol of division and entirely contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. The Police Federation in Northern Ireland has also warned it would make police officers "sitting ducks for terrorists". Moreover, the Irish government will never agree to this course. With the EU in their corner, there is effectively zero chance of this happening.

2. Northern EU-land

The second option is to actually keep Northern Ireland inside the EU: offering it so-called "special status". This would avoid the difficulty of enforcing the border and even accord with the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate who voted to Remain in the EU. Crucially, it would see Northern Ireland able to retain the £600m a year it currently receives from the EU. This is pushed by Sinn Fein and does have a powerful logic, but it would be a massive embarrassment for the British Government and lead to Scotland (and possibly London?) demanding similar treatment.

3. Natural assets

The third option is that suggested by the Irish government in the Times story today, namely a soft border with customs and passport controls at embarkation points on the island of Ireland, using the Irish Sea as a hard border (or certainly a wet one). This option is in play, if for no other reason than the Irish government is suggesting it. Again, unionists will be unhappy as it requires Britain to treat the island of Ireland as a single entity with border and possibly customs checks at ports and airports. There is a neat administrate logic to it, but it means people travelling from Northern Ireland to "mainland" Britain would need to show their passports, which will enrage unionists as it effectively makes them foreigners.

4. Irish reunification

Unpalatable as that would be for unionists, the fourth option is simply to recognise that Northern Ireland is now utterly anomalous and start a proper conversation about Irish reunification as a means to address the border issue once and for all. This would see both governments acting as persuaders to try and build consent and accelerate trends to reunify the island constitutionally. This would involve twin referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Republic (a measure allowed for in the Good Friday Agreement). Given Philip Hammond is warning that transitional arrangements could last three years, this might occur after Brexit in 2019, perhaps as late as the early 2020s, with interim arrangements in the meantime. Demographic trends pointing to a Catholic-nationalist majority in Northern Ireland would, in all likelihood require a referendum by then anyway. The opportunity here is to make necessity the mother of invention, using Brexit to bring Northern Ireland’s constitutional status to a head and deal decisively with the matter once and for all.

In short, ministers have no easy options, however time is now a factor and they will soon have to draw the line on, well, drawing the line.

Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland Office and author of "A United Ireland: Why unification is inevitable and how it will come about"

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.