Life Matters

by David Mitchell


“Hi, is that David? It’s ___. I’m sitting here on my porch with a gun, and I’m going to shoot myself.”

That was a difficult conversation.

I’ve delivered news to a parent late at night of their adult child’s suicide. I’ve taken a funeral for a man who was once baptised in our church but many years, relationships, and towns later was dead by his own doing. Over the years I don’t know how many people have spoken to me about suicidal thoughts they were or are battling.

I’ve never said after learning of a suicide, ‘Well, it’s for the better.’ I’ve never told someone who feels they should end it all, ‘Maybe you’re right.’

You’re probably saying, ‘Of course not. Who would say such a thing?’

At least thirteen representatives in the Scottish Parliament, for a start. A Scottish Liberal Democrat launched a bill in June, supported by twelve other MSPs, to legalise assisted suicide (with consultation to occur this autumn). In England, Baroness Meacher introduced an Assisted Dying Bill to the House of Lords this May. YouGov says 3 in 4 Britons support such a bill.

What should we think about this?

Life is Sacred

Christians believe that human life is unique and sacred. This is because we are created in the image of God (Genesis 1:26-27). We are unique in creation in being able to relate to God in a way other created beings don’t. The ultimate reality that makes human life sacred is the Incarnation: “Christ became incarnate as a human creature, not as some other sort of creature… and in doing so, affirmed human life as unconditionally special and worthy of the gift of eternal life.” [1]

“Christ became incarnate as a human creature, not as some other sort of creature … and in doing so, affirmed human life as unconditionally special and worthy of the gift of eternal life.” [1]

Jacques Maritain

Therefore, Christians have historically recognised that only God has the right to decide when a human’s life ends. The current laws of our land reflect this: for example, in England, assisted suicide is a crime punishable by up to fourteen years in prison.

Suicide Annihilates Freedom

Some existentialists argue that suicide is an ultimate act of freedom, exercising one’s autonomy. Oliver O’Donovan, formerly professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford, challenges this. While “suicide may be a free act, it is not an act that affirms freedom.”

Someone who ends her life exercises agency, yet by doing so destroys her agency forever, permanently ending her freedom.

In contrast, Christ sets us free in order to live out of that freedom: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” (Galatians 5:1, NIV). What is the yoke of slavery? Using our freedom to serve the flesh (Gal. 5:13). O’Donovan explains: “Freedom can alienate itself and produce unfreedom. This is why the gospel speaks of the ‘bondage’ of sin and of freedom ‘restored’ by the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, bringing man into union with the free humanity of the risen Christ.” [2]

The ‘yoke of slavery’ is using our freedom to serve the flesh.

Suicide is the ultimate act of unfreedom, but the ability to choose to live is an act of freedom which ultimately reflects the gospel.

But what about those suffering?

The case for assisted suicide is built around the idea of showing compassion to a suffering person. Isn’t it kind to help her end her pain, when she’s going to die anyway?

I’m sure you can only agree with that compassionate impulse for the person deeply suffering, often facing a terminal diagnosis.

However, there are concerning practical implications if we legalise suicide, no matter how altruistic our motives. Here are a few:[3]

  • The vulnerable can feel like they are a burden. In the US state of Oregon, where assisted suicide legislation has been in force for many years, between 40 and 60% of people have given ‘perceiving self as being a burden to others’ as a reason for choosing to kill themselves.
  • Assisted suicide is premised on the patient making a rational choice. Terminally ill people are often depressed, and depression frequently brings with it suicidal thoughts. How often will a patient’s wish for suicide be a rational choice, rather than one distorted by depression?
  • Doctors may be expected to present terminally ill patients with assisted suicide as one of their options of care. How will this affect doctor-patient trust? What about the dynamics on healthcare teams who have different ethical convictions? Will patients ever feel pressured?
  • Doctors are not able to consistently predict how long someone’s life will last. The Bill proposed in England requires a terminal diagnosis of less than six months, without commenting on the presence or absence of suffering. How many people who are not even suffering would end their lives years prematurely because of a doctor’s mistaken prediction?
  • Could legalised suicide for some cheapen human life for all? If suicide is legal for some, how will it affect how we see the value of every other human life, even our own?
  • Where do the limits of legalised suicide eventually reach? This is a genuine slippery slope. I know personally of someone in Belgium who is otherwise healthy and is seeking to legally end their life on the grounds of mental ill-health. We pray they find real help before the state grants their wish.

Support ‘a good death’

We need to oppose assisted suicide, but we also need to promote a culture of life.

This is true on many levels from the pre-born and supporting mums with unwanted pregnancies, to mental health and making church and society a safe place to process struggles.

Since assisted suicide particularly has the terminally ill in mind, can we think of a compassionate alternative for those suffering in this way?

I believe we can. The word ‘euthanasia’ literally means ‘a good death’, and in centuries past meant a death free from significant suffering and one that you were prepared for. [4] The term has since been repurposed, but there is a growing approach that is seeking ethically to help the dying to have a genuinely good death: it’s called palliative care.

In palliative care, staff aren’t aiming to prolong life by all conceivable means; rather, they are seeking to help the terminally ill to be comfortable and at peace as they live out their final weeks and days.

I remember both my father-in-law and my mum entering palliative care. They received excellent support from compassionate carers at the end of their lives, and I’m so grateful.

Sadly, not all who face dying receive the level of palliative care they need. Dr John Wyatt says, “The reality is that there is a scandalous under-funding and under-resourcing of palliative care facilities in the UK.” [5]

“There is a scandalous under-funding and under-resourcing of palliative care facilities in the UK.”

Dr John Wyatt

If we believe every stage of life matters, could the church begin to speak up more for adequate funding and training to go into this vital area?

What if?

If assisted suicide had been legal at the time, I wonder how much harder it would have been persuading my friend on the phone holding the gun to his head? What if he’d said, ‘If it’s right for them to take their life, what makes it wrong for me?’ Thankfully, he stayed on the phone, we were able to get emergency services to his door, and he’s still alive years later.

An assisted suicide bill was voted down by the Scottish Parliament in 2015, but it’s back both here and in Westminster. This is an important time to act and speak up in the UK. If we are salt and light, I suggest this means the church asking to have a seat at the table in public policy.

Will you speak up? I hope that you and your church will contact your MSP/MP and explain to them why it’s important to protect all lives and vote against assisted suicide.

Letters from individuals are important, but when you write as a church leader, they recognise you represent many more people, and it carries additional weight. If you have a relationship with your local leaders, why not ask to meet with them? The truth is, our governments do care what people think, so let’s let them know.

Our governments do care what people think, so let’s let them know.

You can contact MPs and MSP here.

[1] Stephen Post, Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, 2011, who cites Jacques Maritain on the incarnation.

[2] Oliver O’Donovan, Resurrection and Moral Order, 108

[3] Source: John Wyatt, What’s wrong with the Assisted Dying Bill,

[4] Theo A. Boer, Dictionary of Scripture and Ethics, 2011.

[5] John Wyatt, “What’s wrong” (cited above).

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