Misguided Compassion

September 2014 Pulse

A recent article in the Daily Mail reported that George Carey, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has come out in favour of the legalisation of physician-assisted suicide. Lord Carey said that he changed his mind after witnessing the plight of campaigners like Tony Nicklinson, who is suffering from lock-in syndrome.

In an interview with the British newspaper, Lord Carey, reflecting on his previous opposition to assisted suicide wondered if he had been ‘putting doctrine before compassion, dogma before human dignity’. ‘Today we face a central paradox’, he said. ‘In strictly observing the sanctity of life, the Church could now actually be promoting anguish and pain, the very opposite of a Christian message of hope’.

‘Right-to-Die’ campaigners have warmly welcomed Lord’s Carey’s statements. Rabbi Dr Jonathan Romain, the chair of Interfaith Leaders for the Dignity in Dying in the UK remarked: ‘The Archbishop’s words are like a breath of fresh air sweeping through rooms cloaked in theological dust that should have been dispersed long ago’.

The arguments forwarded by Carey in favour of assisted suicide are not new. In fact, some of his reported statements are quite puzzling for a churchman and theologian of his stature. They alert us to just how important it is to approach this important issue with theological and moral clarity.

It is difficult to see how the Church could be said to be ‘promoting anguish or pain’ by taking seriously the sanctity of life that is everywhere taught in Scripture, especially in its prohibition against murder, the wilful and pre-meditated taking of human life. It is also difficult to understand how the Christian message of hope is undermined by the Church’s refusal to allow a human being – even a human being suffering from a terminal illness – to take his own life through the assistance of his physician.

It is perhaps not too difficult to understand why many people would see assisted suicide or even euthanasia as a compassionate act (hence the expression ‘mercy killing’). But I expected that Lord Carey to have a deeper, more penetrating, appreciation of the issue. For, as the late Pope John Paul II has perceptively pointed out in his encyclical Evangelium Vitae, there is such a thing as ‘misguided compassion’.

Throughout her history, the Church has always reached out with love and compassion to those who are seriously compromised by disability and debilitating illnesses. But she has never understood compassion to be the reason or warrant for wilfully taking the life of the sick, or providing them the means to take their own lives in order to end their suffering.

The Catholic moral theologian William F. May opposes the argument from compassion because he thinks that this approach could very easily make euthanasia the ‘final solution for handling the problem of the aged poor’. In fact, a misguided compassion could also very easily expand the scope of conditions for which physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia is accepted as a solution.

For example, when the State of Oregon first legalised physician assisted suicide, the stipulation was that this approach would be taken as a ‘last resort’ and when nothing else could be done to alleviate ‘severe, unrelenting and intolerable suffering’. But a report shows that in the first four years of its implementation, none of the Oregonians who committed assisted suicide were in this desperate condition.

The report stated that the Oregonians committed assisted suicide for the following reasons: losing autonomy (87 %), decreasing ability to enjoy life (84%), perceived loss of dignity (80%), loss of bodily functions (59%) and being a burden on the family (36 %).

The Church of England continues to oppose physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia. In response to Lord Carey’s remarks, a spokesman from the Church of England reiterated its position: ‘The Church is opposed to assisted suicide. In February 2012 the General Synod passed a motion which affirms the intrinsic value of every human life and expresses its support for the current law on assisted suicide as a means of contributing to a just and compassionate society in which vulnerable people are protected’.

Justin Welby, the incumbent Archbishop of Canterbury points out that changing the law on assisted suicide would put vulnerable people under pressure to end their lives so as ‘not to be a burden’. Lord Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop says: ‘I hope we shall continue to say that anything in our legal settlement, the legal climate of our society, which has the effect of minimising the protection of the most vulnerable as well as of our medical professionals, is not something that the Synod, or, I believe, the Christian church in this country, could ever assent’.


Dr Roland Chia


Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.