Archbishops differ on euthanasia issue

Church of Ireland primate opposes ‘active clinical assistance to end life’

Archbishop Richard Clarke, whose wife Linda died in 2009 following a long illness, said there was a need ‘to understand an important moral distinction between pointless and painful medical intervention on those who are undeniably reaching the end of their lives, and active clinical assistance to end life’. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

Archbishop Richard Clarke, whose wife Linda died in 2009 following a long illness, said there was a need ‘to understand an important moral distinction between pointless and painful medical intervention on those who are undeniably reaching the end of their lives, and active clinical assistance to end life’. Photograph: Dave Meehan/The Irish Times

Tue, Aug 12, 2014, 17:01

The Church of Ireland primate Archbishop Richard Clarke criticised as “perplexing” the support of a former Archbishop of Canterbury for euthanasia.

Lord Carey, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1991 to 2002, said last month he no longer opposed euthanasia as a way of preventing “needless suffering”.

Writing in the Daily Mail he said “the fact is that I have changed my mind. The old philosophical certainties have collapsed in the face of the reality of needless suffering.”

He said “in strictly observing accepted teaching about the sanctity of life, the church could actually be sanctioning anguish and pain – the very opposite of the Christian message”.

Advances in modern medicine had been a crucial factor in his new thinking, he said. “While drugs might be able to hasten the end more quickly and painlessly, sophisticated medical science also offers people the chance to be kept alive far beyond anything that would have been possible only a few years ago. Yet our laws have not caught up with the science.”

In the past he would have “paraded all the usual concerns about the risks of ‘slippery slopes’ and ‘state-sponsored euthanasia’. But those arguments which persuaded me in the past seem to lack power and authority when confronted with the experiences of those approaching a painful death. It fails to address the fundamental question as to why we should force terminally ill patients to an unbearable point.”

Archbishop Clarke, whose wife Linda died in 2009 following a long illness, said there was a need “to understand an important moral distinction between pointless and painful medical intervention on those who are undeniably reaching the end of their lives, and active clinical assistance to end life”.

Writing in the Belfast Telegraph he said “medical non–intervention in some circumstances simply allows nature to take its merciful course, and it is difficult to argue with moral force against this. Direct intervention to end life is another matter”. He also warned against debate on euthanasia/assisted dying being allowed “degenerate into a faith v. non–faith argument”.

For the Christian believer, he said, “life on earth is a gift of God – a wholly unearned gift from start to finish – and the conclusion of earthly life is not the end of our life with God. We should however be humble enough to acknowledge that for many humanists (who have no such belief in God) life is nevertheless something mysterious and sacred, and not simply our ‘possession’.”

He felt that “one of the most perplexing aspects of the intervention” by Lord Carey “on the side of assisted dying was that a fundamental Christian tenet – that our life on earth is not our property to do with as we choose – appeared to have eluded him entirely”.

Archbishop Clarke said, “let no–one ever take a casual or unfeeling attitude to those who are suffering in terminal illness, over however long or short a period. Being helpless and utterly dependent on others at the close of an earthly life is a sad burden for all involved. Within my own life, I do have some experience of this in the death of my own wife from cancer, but this does not permit me to pontificate. I do however believe that if we can bring ourselves to believe that all life is a gift of God, then the end of an earthly life can truly be more about helping others to live than helping them to die.”