The Church has got to face up to the reality of the world as it is lived.

So, Lord Carey has changed his mind about assisted dying by polarising ‘compassion’ and ‘doctrine’, and stating that the church had to come to terms with ‘lived realities’.

Set aside the fact that Lord Carey continues to do what his predecessor never did – keeps on queering his successors’ pitch and seems unable to let go – and we can focus on the nub of his argument. Millions of words are being poured into the media today, so I will put a sideways perspective I haven’t seen pursued in the debate so far today.

  • Who decides what constitutes ‘compassion’? Especially when we know from many terminally ill people that they might well have urged assistance in their dying at an early point in their process, whilst moving on as they came to terms with their prognosis to a different conclusion. Who decides what constitutes compassion and at what point it should be recognised?
  • When did doctrine become emptied of compassion? Doctrine is simply doctrine. But, there is a principle here: law (which is what this is about) cannot be made on the basis of subjective judgements based on emotion; law requires a dispassionate clarity about the ‘doctrine’ upon which the legislation – and ensuing praxis – can be founded. There is actually no way of deciding on such legislation without having some ‘doctrine’ – assumed or articulated – that legitimises or demands such a judgement. In my language, it is the fundamental anthropology that shapes this: what is a human being, why does a human being matter, and why does it matter that these questions are admitted and addressed before moving to emotion/compassion? History is littered with examples of law being established without a clear articulation of the anthropology that underlies it.
  • Lord Carey says his mind was changed by the Nicklinson case.But, ‘Locked-in Syndrome’ is not a terminal illness and should not, therefore, be covered by the arguments he makes. Isn’t this what we call a category error?
  • What is a ‘lived reality’ and why is it cut adrift from considerations of thinking about why we matter? When did philosophy become the opposite of humanity and divorced from the rest of life? And, if Lord Carey is consistent, will he now support other ‘lived realities’ and, for example, back gay marriage, legalisation of drugs, abortion on demand, and so on – all describable as ‘lived realities’?

While medicine progresses at a remarkable pace, our statutory framework remains trapped in an outdated past, badly out of kilter with the real needs of our society.

  • And to what else might that judgement apply? We clearly need a deeper debate and one that doesn’t assume that if you use judgement, you are, by definition, devoid of compassion.

Maybe the new “philosophical certainties” could do with being subjected to the “old” ones that have now “collapsed”?

If you want to turn your white sheet red, make sure you only put red dye in the water.

If you want to ensure that the evidence you collect fits the conclusions with which you started, select for your committee those who begin with the same assumptions and conclusions as yourself.

The Commission on Assisted Dying has done just that. We also knew its conclusions before the publication of its report this morning because it had been widely leaked. But, even if no leaks had dripped out, the conclusions would not have been a surprise.

Two challenges this morning: (a) Look at the constitution of the commission and use your imagination to work out how they came to the conclusions they did, and (b) spot the difference between the campaigning goals of Dignity in Dying and Falconer’s conclusions. This commission is only independent in so far as it was self-selected and self- established. Loads of groups and bodies involved in the debate refused to speak with them.

So, before giving their report too much credence, just imagine the credibility an ‘independent’ group of evangelical Christians would have been given if they had established a ‘commission on abortion’ and concluded they were against it?

Assisted dying is a hugely important (as well as contentious) ethical matter which demands serious debate on philosophical, theological, anthropological and pastoral grounds. But the presentation of this commission and its coverage in a sympathetic media needs a massive dose of caution. On any other subject it wouldn’t have been taken seriously.

Update: link to Church of England response.

Further update: good BMJ post offering wider view.


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