Sunday, 17 July 2016

Assisted Dying

Assisted dying is a major public issue which evokes passionate responses from people on both sides of the argument.  Assisted Dying: A Quaker Exploration is a collection of essays published this year by Leeds Area Meeting (  This topical and thought-provoking collection explores the issue from various standpoints, whether professional or deeply personal.  Contributions from a theologian, criminologist, philosopher, sociologist, nurse, doctors and Quaker thinkers challenge the reader.  The book is for a Quaker readership but will also help others consider this important issue.

The background to the controversy of assisted dying is that people are living longer, medical advances mean that people can be kept alive much longer than previously, and consequently the health and social care services are under increasing pressure.  Assisted dying is already a legal practice in various places outside the UK.  Here, however, the law is complicated.  Suicide itself is not illegal, unlike the act of assisting a suicide, which is against the law but will not necessarily get prosecuted.   A reader of this compilation will conclude that, as with most issues of bioethics, it is impossible to take an absolutist position.  On the one hand, there is much force in the slippery slope argument from those against legalising assisted dying but, on the other, these voices cannot be allowed to prevail if progress is to be made to meet a growing moral dilemma.

My own, humble opinion is that, as Bill Clinton said of abortion, assisted dying should be legal but rare.  However, what I particularly liked about this book was not the subject matter per se, as it is not a topic in which I have a strong opinion, but the example it provides of the Quakerly way of discerning the truth.  A collection of essays, edited by Quakers but with contributions by non-Quaker experts, is an excellent aid to deep opinion-forming.  So many of the issues of the day which may come before Quakers in Meetings for Worship for Business are very complex, technically and morally, and rarely lend themselves to an easy answer.  The response of simplicity in the face of complexity must be patient inquiry rather than a leap to judgement.  (I say this as someone who constantly battles his own violent prejudices.) Quakers should be cautious in forming a strict position on a matter of controversy and be on their guard lest they are led by inadequate or biased information or by ministry which is more strident than wise.  The quality of Assisted Dying (2016) reminds me of the forward-thinking and influential A Quaker View of Sex (1963), which lead to the decriminalisation of homosexual acts.  This balanced, comprehensive and commendable work by Leeds Area Meeting is a model of its kind.

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