In our Kendall studio this morning, the Rev Dr Alan Billings, Director of the Centre for Ethics and Religion at Lancaster University.
Hello, good morning, Dr Barking in Kendall. Last week Kelly Taylor, who has a painful life-threatening condition, asked for medical help to end her life. I found some of the subsequent debate puzzling because there seemed an assumption that all religious people would hold the same view about it. In fact, we all struggle to work out where the limits of individual self-determination should lie when someone sees little point in prolonging their life further. At present we live with something of a fudge, it suits most of us though not all. The fudge is this, every day we allow doctors to end the lives of some people by making a distinction between intention and out come. A doctor increases the morphine of terminally ill people in great pain to the point where they die, the morphine kills – that's the outcome. But the doctor is not thought culpable because his intention was the relief of pain not the death of the patient. But this is not a distinction we normally allow. If my neighbour asked me to cut his grass while he's on holiday and I do that on the hottest day of the year, scorching the ground and destroying his lawn, I would not get away with saying that I should be judged on my intention and not the final outcome, I'm responsible for the outcome. Kelly Taylor's request makes us uncomfortable. We don't want to seem lacking in compassion yet we are fearful about discussing it. We fear a slippery slope at the bottom of which anyone would be able to demand assistance in ending their life in any circumstances, the jilted teenager, the depressed pensioner, euthanasia on demand. There is a slope though we can always set a limit as to how far down we go as we did with abortion. We don't have abortion on demand but abortion in certain circumstances. We also fear playing God, a phrase used by religious and non-religious people alike, but this is an inevitable part of the human condition. There's a parable in the book of Genesis that says as much. When the first humans eat the forbidden fruit their eyes are opened, they become like God knowing good and evil, then they will have to leave paradise and make their way in the world working out as best they may how to live well. There are many circumstances in which we think it's morally permissible to end a life, we allow doctors to administer morphine, to leave very premature babies to die and to remove feeding and hydration tubes in cases of persistent vegetative state. We've never regarded the sanctity of human life as an absolute. What Kelly Taylor wanted therefore was not some shocking breach of the principal never breached before, she was just asking us to think further about her own case, we owe her at least that much.