Suffering has a worth and purpose in the Christian faith

Having blogged last Thursday about Mark Dowd’s first programme on Radio 4 about euthanasia, “Heart and Soul”, I have now listened to his second one, broadcast last Saturday. In the first programme he interviewed Alison Davis, a Catholic convert, who suffers from spina bifida and who is a passionate opponent of euthanasia and assisted suicide. In this second episode he interviewed Edward Turner, a humanist, whose mother, Dr Anne Turner, made headlines in 2006 when, accompanied by Edward and his two sisters, she ended her life at the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland.

She was suffering from a degenerative disease, similar to one her husband had died of a few years earlier. Edward’s father had had a “normal” death and his son described his last year as “a torture.” Originally opposed to assisted suicide he told Dowd that as a result of that experience he thinks “we hold on to other people’s lives longer than is good for them.” At first he was opposed to his mother’s wish and with his sisters did everything he could to make her life enjoyable and comfortable. But Dr Turner, a retired GP who had specialised in family planning, was adamant that she wanted to die before she became completely helpless and dependent on others.

Turner began to feel selfish in opposing his mother’s wishes. When he returned to the UK after her death the local vicar, together with a humanist practitioner, arranged a humanist funeral for her in his parish church. According to Turner they both agreed that the funeral “marked one of the high points of their professional careers.”

Throughout the programme the interviewer, Mark Dowd, came across as tactfully as he had done in his earlier interview with Alison Davis. You could not guess where his own sympathies lay – except perhaps for one small clue. Alongside his conversation with Edward Turner he also interviewed at length a doctor from a Kenyan hospice as well as a doctor in South Africa. They both spoke of the importance of palliative care and how different the African culture is in its attitude towards the sick and the dying. Where the average life expectancy is 52 years, the aim of medicine is to reduce this mortality rather than to end life.

The Kenyan doctor explained to Dowd that religious faith is at the heart of this discussion. Suicide is very much disapproved of; Africans regard it as offending their ancestors; their families would be stigmatised by the community. Also, the culture means that illness and dying are “not such a lonely place” as in the Western world; there is much less emphasis on individual autonomy; you are part of a community rather than an isolated individual. Dowd gave as much airtime to this positive African perspective – not something, I would have thought, a covert euthanasia sympathiser would have done in a programme wanting to show the “pro-choice” point of view.

Dr Jonathan Romain, a Reform rabbi, was also briefly interviewed. He used to worry about the “slippery slope” argument but had “watched too many people die in agony”; he has been impressed by the safeguards formulated by Keir Starmer QC, the Director of Public Prosecutions and now thinks that assisting suicide “is a religious thing to do.” He told Dowd he thought doctors should “play God” and use their skills to help people “die with dignity.”

Certain things came over clearly in these two programmes: broadly speaking it is a war (to the death) between a religious (largely Christian) outlook and a humanist/atheistic one. If you believe in life after death it gives you a different perspective than if you don’t. You can also accept the possibility of helplessness and dependence because suffering has worth and purpose within the Christian faith. Living by rational principles as Turner does, means that seeming to prolong suffering when faced by terminal illness makes no sense.

I have just come across a book by Ann Farmer, about whom I have blogged recently, entitled “The Five Wounds”. For many years she has suffered from a physical illness and her book, published by Gracewing, is a wonderful testament to the Christian outlook on suffering (the Five Wounds are those of Christ on the Cross). In a postscript on suicide she writes, “The only effective answer to human suffering is love; in committing suicide we would curtail our capacity to love and be loved; we would be inflicting a fatal wound on an already wounded spirit. The “death as a solution” approach is based on the assumption that the earthly life is the only life. As such, it offers an easy way out of suffering, a promise of true rest, eternal sleep…but death without God would not mean eternal sleep; it would mean eternity without love.”

I heartily recommend this book to Keir Starmer, Dr Romain and the humanist practitioner – indeed to anyone laid low by pain, physical or mental. It is a prescription for hope rather than despair – which is really what “assisted suicide” is all about.