Film Premier and Discussion at MDMD in London 27th April 2019

Faith and Assisted Dying

Dr Taj Hargey, Revd Canon Rosie Harper and Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain in discussion. Chaired by Robert Ince

MDMD used its Spring London meeting to premier a new film, “Faith and Assisted Dying“.

The film is a discussion between three leaders from the Abrahamic religions (Christianity, Judaism, Islam) on how their followers approach assisted dying:

  • Dr Taj Hargey, Director of the Muslim education centre for Oxford
  • Revd Canon Rosie Harper, Rector of Great Missenden, member of the Church of England General Synod
  • Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, Leader of the reformed synagogue in Maidenhead
  • Chaired by Robert Ince, Unitarian, and president of the International Association for Religious Freedom

The film can be watched below and is freely available on YouTube. MDMD encourage interested groups to show it at meetings as a focus for their future discussions.


Summary

There is a total disconnect between what the religious hierarchy are saying and what religious people feel.

The discussion started by asking whether religious leaders reach their positions by examining their consciences first and deciding based on that, or by consulting their religious texts for answers there to share.

Rosie and Jonathan agreed that it was largely an emotional response. “People come to a position about something and then find a text to support it… you can make the Bible say almost anything.” Taj pointed out that orthodox Muslims are literalists, who go to the texts and follow it. However he criticised this saying “we have to be people of thought and thinking – critical thinking, and that means sometimes we have to go against the grain“. He gave the example of slavery to show that sometimes what was acceptable in the past is unthinkable today. Jonathan pointed out that with slavery there are religious texts that discuss it, whereas that is not the case with Assisted Dying. Instead people have to hunt for more general things that might give a clue. He gave the example of “God gives and God takes away“, pointing out that “that doesn’t mean that we cant say ‘thank you very much but now I’d like to gently hand it back’“. Similarly, “there’s a time to be born, and a time to die” but that doesn’t say who chooses.

The conversation moved on to consider a fundamental question: “Is life sacred, and what does that mean in the context of Assisted Dying?

For Jonathan, “life is sacred in the sense that it is special, it needs to be treated with respect, handled with care, the person honoured, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that every last second of your life has to be lived.” He went on “Life being sacred means also respecting people’s ability to say ‘I’ve had enough of it.’ and [them] being able to let go.

Rosie clarified in another way, “When you talk about ‘sacred’ you’ve got to talk about ‘real’ life, not the sort of shadow land that some people get trapped in for years and years.” She cited the example of someone being kept alive in a care home for over 3 years who couldn’t speak, requiring assistance to breathe and to receive nutrition. [This case emphasises the importance of refusing treatment and writing an advance decision.]

Continuing this thread Robert asked “Do you believe your life belongs to God, and that it is only for God to bring it to a close?” He went on to question whether medicine should interfere with “God’s will” in its efforts to extend life unnaturally.

For Taj, “life if God’s gift to us, but we are autonomous agencies… if we don’t have autonomy, how can there be a judgement?” He went on to agree with Rosie and Jonathan that a life dependent on complete care should not be considered “sacred”. “I don’t buy the argument that life is sacred indiscriminately.

Jonathan picked up on the comparison with the benefits of medicine: “People say ‘you’re playing God’, actually that is a compliment! … we’re constantly playing God, giving people heart transplants and blood transfusions… sometimes it means giving them extra years, and at other times, such as Assisted Dying, it means allowing them to die with dignity, with peace and without pain.

Rosie raised fundamental questions: “What kind of a God do you believe in? If you believe that this life is a gift from God, what sort of a God is that? Is it really a gift, or is it a gift that is conditional [in the sense that] I’m giving you your life, but hang on a minute I’m going to still be controlling all the puppet strings. … Or is it a God that says, this is a gift and then the choices that you freely make, to love me, I know are trustworthy?” Rosie clearly believes in this second kind of God. For her, free will is fundamental and shouldn’t be “whisked away from you just at the moment when most people feel that they need it most“. Jonathan strongly agreed with this.

The conversation ended with the participants being asked where they personally stand on the Assisted Dying issue.

Rosie, who is half Swiss and has family experience of how assisted dying has been part of Swiss culture for over 6o years, explained that the Church of England hierarchy found her views very difficult to accept, but that the “people in the local church were just very relieved to be able to have an open conversation about it“.

Jonathan agreed that there was “a total disconnect between what the religious hierarchy are saying and what religious people feel.” He clarified that he was in favour of legalising Assisted Dying, citing the 25 years experience in Oregon, subject to conditions of the person being mentally competent, terminally ill, and wanting it of their own free will.

Robert asked for clarification on the Oregon 6-month definition of “terminally ill”. Jonathan said he agreed with that, to avoid the situation of someone who was “going through a bad patch in their 40s making a rash or hasty decision“. It needed to be restricted to those whose life was ending anyway.

Taj explained that in Orthodox Islam with very traditional Muslims there is a strong view that under no circumstances can you interfere with God’s prerogative of giving and taking life. Previously, although never strongly against Assisted Dying he was not a supporter. His thinking has evolved so that now he feels that if it is not medically possible for someone to have a good quality of life, and that they are in excruciating pain and terminally ill, people should have the choice. “The trouble with Orthodox Islam and traditional Muslims is that they don’t want to give anyone choices…. Liberal, progressive Muslims are now trying to show that there is an alternative, especially when we live in a highly medicalised society“. He went on, “We should have an option to decide do we want to have a good death or a bad death. That is something we should all campaign for, Jews, Christians, Muslims, Atheists, Vegetarians, Jedi’s, the whole lot.

Robert closed the discussion by explaining the experience of his cousin who had Muscular Dystrophy from the age of 1. She had a really exciting life within the limits of her disability, but when she got to just over 70 she got to the bad stage of MD so she went to Switzerland for a medically assisted death there. Robert fully supported what she did: “There’s a point in life where you say ‘enough is enough’“.

After the screening all but one of the participants took the stage for questions from the audience. Taj Hargey’s place was taken by his wife, Jackie, as Raj wasn’t available to attend in person. Jackie knew his views well so was able to reflected them.

Questions and Discussion:

Audio:



Being on the naughty step with Desmond Tutu ain’t that bad!

Q:  Isn’t there a value of an unquestioning faith for the person who holds that faith?

A: For Rosie the issue was not about changing the minds of believers, but to stop them preventing others having their choice.  For Jonathan, a meaningful faith needs to be a questioning faith. Jackie explained that in Islam belief can only be belief if you question it. You are given a choice. You can only exercise this choice by questioning. Jonathan emphasised that the film demonstrates that within each of the three religions represented in the video there is debate on this issue.

Q: If religious leaders feel threatened by assisted dying, as the film suggested, perhaps we should try to reassure them?

A: Rosie agreed that Christian leaders are generally very opposed to Assisted Dying. She is the only acting Church of England vicar prepared to advocate Assisted Dying. She told us “I’ve had a hand written letter from the archbishop telling me off about it… Fortunately, being on the naughty step with Desmond Tutu ain’t that bad!” The bishops still think they are in the ’50s – the moral guardians of the country. But they are discovering that they are behind the curve on moral issues. Rosie cited issue of gays and anti-women priests. “They [leading bishops] should be taking the leadership, in fact they are just holding the rest of the country back.

Jonathan continued this line: “The same people who are against Assisted Dying are against abortion, against female priests, against gay marriage.” Reassurance is very important. He explained that talking about safe-guards helped change his mind on the issue.

Jackie explained that in Islam there is no clerical heirachy. An Imam is someone who leads the prayers. Leaders are self-appointed and allowed by their communities to continue in that role. In Shia Islam there is a scholarly hierarchy, which is perhaps the nearest equivalent.

Q: How do those of us who don’t have a religion best stay in dialogue with those of you who do, and how do you stay in dialogue with us?

A: Everyone has a moral framework, and chooses a language to articulate it, whether it is a religious language or a humanist language. We need to recognise that there is so much more that unites us than divides us. When people try to use their language to control others who don’t use that language it causes problems. There are many alliances between religious and secular campaigners, on green issues and on gay rights issues for example. Feel free to attack the conservative religious hierarchy, but remember that religions have a liberal side who are working on the same platform. The issue isn’t secular vs religion, many religious people are on the same side.

Q: For those with a Hindu background, how will choosing their own death affect their karma in a future life.

A: None of the panel were able to offer an answer as their religions didn’t include that concept.