Some year ago when I was a parish priest I received a phone call late one December afternoon from a couple, whom up to that point I had never met, but with whom I would meet regularly.
They informed me that Mark (not his real name) had been told by his consultant that afternoon, following a diagnosis of a brain tumour, that he was not expected to live more than six months and possibly less. I know how frightening and devastating that sort of news is to the recipient and its impact on their family and close friends having experienced it within my own family.
On meeting, we discussed a number of pastoral issues and started to plan for his impending death. We prayed together and over the following weeks and months Mark and his wife became regular members of the church and well known and loved by the church family. He and his wife did many things they’d planned to do and packed a lot into the first few months following the diagnosis. Miraculously, despite the consultant’s prognosis, Mark lived for a further six years. Eventually Mark died in the local hospice.
Not once during the six year period did I hear Mark or any member of his family talk about or consider asking for assisted suicide, a subject being hotly debated at many levels of society, government and church today. As a parish priest I ministered to many terminally ill patients and never heard any of them raise this. You could argue that they wouldn’t with their parish priest and that may be so, but with many there were frank discussions and what I did hear was people asking for “assisted living” not “assisted dying”.
It’s very easy for people not in that stage of life to argue against assisted suicide and I have huge compassion for those campaigning because I can’t know how they feel and what pain they’re in. However, my own pastoral experience affirms for me the rightness of opposing Lord Falcnor’s Bill which would allow for this, though I do believe society has the right to discuss the legal, ethical and moral questions this subject raises. The law as it stands provides a good balance between compassion and protection of the vulnerable. This is an emotive subject and we must be careful that the public debate and the demands of a high profile number don’t put the vulnerable under even more pressure and fear of coercion and persuasion. In my own familial experience and as a parish priest I found the health care professionals in our hospitals and hospices provided outstanding care as they do here in Doncaster, care that worked to preserve life, that recognised the unique value and worth of each person and that often made the time leading to the end of a person’s life a deeply moving and profound experience. If Mark had been put under pressure in those first six months to end his life, I have no doubt that he and his family would have missed precious and cherished moments, his life would have been ended prematurely by the significance given to a diagnosis that was in this case inconclusive and those moments would have been lost forever.
* Peter Burrows, Bishop of Doncaster