Religious Reasons for Supporting Assisted Dying

10/12/2012 16:59 GMT | Updated 09/02/2013 10:12 GMT

If you think all ministers of religion are against assisted dying, think again. It is true that the religious hierarchies are against it, but a growing number of Christian and Jewish clergy have a more nuanced view and now think it can be appropriate in certain circumstances. The once uniform religious response of 'no, it's ungodly and wrong' is no longer the only response.

Personally, I used to be against assisted dying. It was for the three reasons that opponents most commonly give, but all of which I now think are flawed.

The first concern is over abuses that could take place if a change in the law is enacted permitting those wishing to die to do so. This might include attempts by unscrupulous families to dispatch an elderly relative who is becoming a burden to them, or a rich one whose fortune they want to inherit as soon as possible.

But potential abuses should not be a block to helping genuinely-deserving cases. The answer is to put safeguards in place that can protect a permissive approach.

These are now being proposed by Dignity in Dying and would involve a series of conditions, all of which would need to be fulfilled: that it be only for those who are terminally ill (verified by two independent doctors), who are suffering unbearably, who are mentally competent, who request it (verified by two independent witnesses who are not beneficiaries), and who can change their mind at any point.

The second objection is the 'slippery slope' argument: that once permission is given in certain situations, it could later be extended to the others, such as to those who are not mentally competent.

The possible fears of the future should not impede the definite needs of the present. The boundaries we feel are right now can be given the force of law. It is also very foolish to think we can control the future. If tomorrow's society wishes to change those boundaries, it will do so wherever we had drawn the line today. All we can do is act according to our best insights for our own time.

The third argument is the sanctity of life, and that every person is to be valued whatever their condition. As a minister of faith I agree totally, but in my congregational work I have also seen too many people die in great pain who should have been allowed to pass away earlier, as they had wished. That, too, is part of valuing them.

Hospices do wonderful work, but even they cannot alleviate all pain, nor give dignity to those who limbs no longer obey them and are reduced to being totally dependent on others.

Those who find suffering enriching or worth enduring deserve every support, but in whose interest are we forcing a person to stay alive who wishes to die? For me, it is a religious response to say that they have a right to choose to die rather than carry on in pain or indignity.

In the Bible we are told that "There is a time to be born and a time to die" (Ecclesiastes 3.2) - but it is noticeable that it does not stipulate who chooses that moment. Until now, we have always assumed that it was God.

But our actions tell a different story. Rightly, we see no problem in usurping God's role by prolonging life through interventions such as blood transfusions or limb transplants. Similarly, we should also be able to bring life to a gentle close within the above limits and safeguards.

Many clergy will still oppose assisted dying, but there are now religious voices whose pastoral experiences and theological training lead them to permit it for those who so wish.