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Enlightenment within religions

Opinion Piece

Religion doesn’t speak with one voice. This has recently been demonstrated with Judaism and Anglicanism in the matter of assisted dying. Traditionally, the hierarchy retains the moral absolutist position of black/white prohibitions according to the tenets of its ideology. That means an absolute “No” for assisted dying.

But within religions, there are and have always been enlightened moral relativists — those who compare one set of harms against another set of harms and who have the courage to opt for the lesser harm, even though this might oppose the official dogma.

So it was heart-warming to read that Rabbi Jonathan Romain, a minister at Maidenhead Synagogue in England and the founder of Inter-faith leaders for Dignity in Dying said that assisted dying did not necessarily contradict his Judaic faith.

The occasion was an evening organised on the Channel Island of Guernsey, which is currently considering assisted dying laws. Guernsey also wants to establish a Dignitas-style facility where Britons left in the cold by their purposefully-ignorant MPs can come to request assisted dying in specified circumstances.

Of Judaism, the Rabbi said: “We still believe in the sanctity of life, that does not mean we believe in the sanctity of suffering”.

Canada passed assisted dying laws in 2017. Last week, an article in the Anglican Journal of Canada advised that Bishops and Archbishops have revised the role of Anglican clerics in relation to the new assisted dying laws in their respective diocese. Although the Anglican church officially opposed assisted dying before enactment, some senior clerics are now anxious to ensure that “pastoral care is available to those who inquire about or qualify for and claim the legal right to medical assistance in dying”.

Accordingly, when 68-year-old practicing Anglican Carolyn Sitlington chose assisted dying in Ontario due to the intractable pain and total immobility from her Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), she was not abandoned by her priest, Canon Keith Nethery.

Nethery gave Carolyn, her husband and other family members Holy Communion and led them in prayer before the life-ending medication was given. “They made a decision that they were comfortable within their faith, and they wanted a priest . . . to make that journey with them,” Nethery says. “My role, what God has called me to do, is to go and be present . . . so that people have someone to journey with.”

After the medication was given, it took less than 15 minutes for Carolyn’s life to be ended. Her passing was reportedly very peaceful.

It behoves us to compare that with how it could have been: terrifying, desperate, wracked with pain or sedated into oblivion, stripped of her selfhood in the lead-up to death under terminal sedation maybe? It also behoves us to compare these instances of humane comfort with the comfortless rejection of the more fundamentalist religions that would rather uphold official dogma than minister with compassion to their flock.

Increasingly, doctors and some palliative care professionals acknowledge that it is cruel to withhold assisted dying from certain patients whose extreme suffering cannot be eased, even with their best efforts.

New Zealand’s assisted dying laws are now being debated in the Justice select committee, which must report back to Parliament by the end of September after considering some 30,000 submissions.

Parliamentary life appears to attract religious zealots, perhaps because of the power it confers to control the lives of others as lawmakers. Will the majority of our MPs side with religious dogma or with a more enlightened view of human consideration extended to those most grievously afflicted?

Ann David