Do we have the right to die?

Vera B, 21st Mar 2016 2 comments

Do we have the right to determine the manner and time of our own death? For those who’ve known suffering, the answer may not be clear cut.

Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, has said that …. For a believer to say, ‘The time could come when I find myself in a situation that has no meaning and I reserve the right to end my life in such a situation’, would be to say that there is some aspect of human life where God cannot break through ….

I respect the point of view. I too am a Christian and yet I struggle with the idea that there is meaning to be found in prolonged suffering. I wonder if there are times when a person can have suffered more than enough and I think there needs to be an honest conversation about the hopes we have about how and where we will end our lives.

So, do we have the right to determine the time and manner of our own death?

I don’t know. I should like to think we could have a full and frank conversation about it. I write as a person who was a nurse, and the daughter of parents who both had long term debilitating conditions. I have had conversations with people, read many articles and books about this “elephant in the room”.

Speaking from experience

I also have personal experience of suffering. I have had Multiple Sclerosis for more than 20 years. It hasn’t stopped me from having a family and I still lead a full life within the limits of my symptoms. I now use a wheelchair for getting around and have to have help with personal care. A hoist makes moving and handling easier for me and those who assist me. I have a hospital bed. By the grace of God we have been able to look on the bright side of life, and still do.

However, the reality of MS, which changes from day to day, from morning to evening as well as over time, means that there is no ‘new normal’ to embrace. All we can be certain of is that I will get worse. With each relapse I lose a little more independence. God has broken through each time, we have discovered new hopes and dreams to help make up for the many disappointments. We have found strength we didn’t know we had, my husband to care for me, me to be cheerful, both of us to make the most of every opportunity to enjoy ourselves.

Theology based on compassion

Is there a sense in which the church is dragging its heels on the reality of how we show compassion for people who live with long term disabling conditions? Of course I am concerned that vulnerable people should be protected from feeling pressurised. But there must be a way to empower people like me, who have a long term illness and those such as my husband, who care? I wonder how many theologians have personally experienced chronic illness themselves or found themselves caring for loved ones?

How much suffering is enough?

People seem to think we are “spiritual giants” because my husband and I are still together, keeping positive and appearing to manage well. But do they think that we really don’t mind that we can’t go for a walk together holding hands like normal people do? Or that I can’t get on the floor to play with our grandchildren? How long shall we have to keep on trusting that, in the end, ‘all shall be well’? I’m not now fit enough to travel to Switzerland and I’m not yet ready to die.

If I should be confined to my bed, completely dependent on others for my care whilst waiting to die, I would feel comforted to know that I could ask to end my life when it feels that the time is right for me to do so. That God can be in that decision.

How shall all be well?

The series, Call the Midwife based on the memoirs of midwife Jennifer Worth, shows the presence of God in birth, life and death. In the last episode of the recent series, Sister Evangelina died in the midst of her life, in Nonnatus House, her home, sitting comfortably in an armchair by the fire. Isn’t this how we’d all like to end our days!


Rowan Williams, Times-on-line, 2005:

“Do I have a right to die? Religious believers answer for themselves that they do not. For a believer to say: ‘The time could come when I find myself in a situation that has no meaning, and I reserve the right to end my life in such a situation,’ would be to say that there is some aspect of human life where God cannot break through. It would be to say that when I as an individual can no longer give meaning to my life, it has no value, and human dignity is best served by ending it….That would be in the eyes of most traditional believers, Christian or otherwise, an admission that faith had failed… It would imply that life at a certain level of suffering or incapacity could no longer be lived in relation to God.”

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  • name withheld, 11th May 2016

    I am a fan of Rowan Williams but I found the remarks of his quoted in
    this blog appalling.

    Firstly there is something outrageous about an able bodied person telling a
    seriously disabled person that they should be able to find God ‘breaking
    through’ their suffering, and somehow they are failing in faith if they do
    not. Tell that to someone with ‘locked in’ syndrome if you dare.

    Secondly to say that as a believing individual I am suggesting, by
    wishing to end my suffering, that my life has no meaning, no value, and
    that my faith has failed, is logistically daft, as well as insulting. As ‘believers’ we know
    our life has meaning, eternal meaning, and we are not afraid of
    death, because for us, there is no death, only a continuation of life
    through the spirit. What we are actually saying is that our life HAS
    MORE MEANING than this dreadful suffering can give it. That we are
    worth MORE than this daily and intolerable pain. We are too
    precious, in the eyes of God, as well as in the eyes or our loved ones, and
    indeed ourselves, to continue to suffer in this way.

    There is also an implication in his words that somehow God is ‘allowing’
    suffering for some strange reason. Obviously we’re not talking here
    about the suffering that is the usual stuff of the human experience. We’re
    talking about appalling, continual suffering. Sorry, but I don’t
    ‘believe’ in a God that wants me, or my fellows, to suffer in this way so
    that other Christians, outside of my body, mind and spirit, can somehow
    find meaning in it.

    If I decide my suffering is enough, I do so in the clear and absolute
    knowledge that I am loved, that I have done my best thus far, that my
    life will continue in the heart of Christ, and this temporal world is
    not, by any manner of means, as significant as Rowan Williams implies.

  • James T., 15th May 2016

    The older I get the more I find the words of some theologians meaningless – to
    me anyway.
    Picking apart the quote from Rowan Williams for instance; the phrase “God
    cannot break through”, is one example.
    I know of no-one in history apart from Jesus himself, (and a couple of
    characters in the Old Testament apparently?) whose bodies have not finally
    failed to function. This is the natural process, presumably designed by God. This process all too often involves pain and suffering, including disablement, debilitation, loss of dignity, disconnection and disengagement with significant others, which adds the element of loneliness. The more we understand how the body naturally deteriorates, and the kind of diseases that can afflict it, the easier it is to formulate an appropriate response. That response must include the acceptance that God will not, or cannot, ‘break through’ to halt a process which He designed.
    Williams’ uses other phrases which he suggests are incompatible with
    being a believer; “. . .an admission that faith had failed” and “that life at a
    certain level of suffering and incapacity could no longer be lived in relation to
    God” – depend upon what he means by a “believer”. There comes a point where it is incongruent to have faith in God intervening into this process that He designed, and that one needs a certain level of physical and mental functioning to live life in relation to anything or anyone, including God.
    If death then for a believer, is surely the passage into the ‘everlasting life’ in the presence of the triune God, whose love for us yearns for relationship, would
    He really prefer us to merely exist in disfunctioning physical deterioration
    unable to engage in any form of relationship, or would he not welcome us
    into his presence if we decided with the wisdom we’ve been granted to take
    that step into His presence?