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
Reuters/New Statesman composite.
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When it comes to social media, we all have a responsibility to avoid sharing upsetting images

If Twitter is the new journalism, we are all editors – and responsible for treating our fellow humans with dignity.

“I wish I hadn’t seen that”, my colleague says from across the desk. It’s been an hour since the first reports came in of a shooting outside Parliament, and the news agency Reuters has started posting photographs of injured people, knocked down by the terrorist as he drove across Westminster Bridge.

In one, a brunette woman leans over a victim whose blood is beginning to stain the wet pavement. Lying on her back, she is framed by scattered postcards sold for tourists which have been knocked to the floor. She is clutching the arm of the woman helping her, but her eyes are staring dead into the photographer’s lens.

Another photograph – the one that my colleague is referring to – disturbs me even more: a man who has fallen (or been pushed?) off the bridge onto a stairwell. He is face down in a pool of blood, his left leg at an unnatural angle. It is impossible to tell if he is alive or not.

Briefly, before I scroll past, I wonder if someone, somewhere is seeing the same picture and experiencing a shock of recognition as they recognise their friend’s clothes.

And then there is one picture which I now cannot find on Twitter, but which, lying in bed last night, I could not stop thinking of: a woman’s legs extended from under the wheel of a bus, her skirt hiked up to show her underwear, her shoes missing.

We are a desk of journalists covering an attack on the Houses of Parliament, so I keep scrolling. It is only later, in an article by the Telegraph, that I learn a junior doctor has declared the woman dead.

Of course, the shock of seeing images like these is nothing compared to what war reporters, doctors or police go through on a regular basis. But a 2015 study at the University of Toronto found that extended exposure to violent or disturbing material can have a severe effect on journalists’ mental health.

The impact can be particularly confusing when one does not anticipate seeing violence.On social media, we increasingly encounter images this way: without warning and without a chance to steel ourselves. This is particularly a problem when it comes to members of the public, whose jobs don’t require them to look at shocking material but who can nevertheless be exposed to it just by virtue of using a social media network.

It is for this reason that, shortly after Reuters published their photographs of the Westminster victims, prominent journalists began posting asking their colleagues not to retweet them. Some protested the fact that Reuters had published them at all.

In today’s media landscape, news moves fast and social media faster. Where a picture editor would have previously had until their print deadline to decide which images to run, now photographers are able to send their work back to the office almost instantaneously, and editors must make a snap decision about what to release.

Deciding what images to use can be a difficult call – especially under pressure. On the one hand, there is the urge to not turn away, to bear witness to the full magnitude of what has happened, even if it is shocking and upsetting. On the other, there is the need to treat fellow human beings with dignity, and particularly to avoid, where possible, showing images of victims whose families have not yet been informed.

Social media makes this process even more difficult. Once released online, photographs of the Westminster attack were quickly saved and re-posted by private individuals, stripped of context or warning. One can choose not to follow the Reuters Pictures account, but one cannot necessarily avoid seeing an image once it is being retweeted, reposted and recycled by private accounts.

As the line between traditional news and social media blurs and we increasingly become participants in the news, as well as consumers of it, our sense of responsibility also shifts. On Twitter, we are our own editors, each charged with making sure we extend dignity to our fellow humans, even – especially – when the news is dramatic and fast-moving.

I was glad, this morning, to encounter fewer and fewer photographs – to not see the girl lying under the bus again. But at 3am last night, I thought about her, and about her family; about them knowing that journalists on desks across Britain had seen up their loved one’s skirt during the last moments of her life. It was, without putting too fine a point on it, no way to encounter a fellow human being.

Over the next few days, we will find out more about who the victims were. The media will release images of them in happier times, tell us about their jobs and careers and children – as is already happening with Keith Palmer, the policeman who we now know died on the Parliamentary Estate.

It is those images which I hope will be shared: not just as a way to resist fear, but as a way of acknowledging them as more than victims – of forging a different connection, based not in horror and voyeurism, but in a small moment of shared humanity.

There is no shame in being affected by graphic images, however removed one “ought” to feel. If you would like someone to talk to, Mind can provide details of local services.

The BBC also provides advice for those upset by the news.

Find out how to turn off Twitter image previews here.

Stephanie Boland is digital assistant at the New Statesman. She tweets at @stephanieboland