Dying In Dignity Mensa Sig News Journal Vol 2 Issue 2

The Sanctity of Human Life and Personal Freedom

Chris Docker

The importance attached to these moral principles, and the balance in which they are held by the people of Britain, has been succinctly and sensitively summed up by Lord Justice Hoffman in the Bland case when he said that these principles are "deeply rooted in our ways of thinking and that the law cannot possibly ignore them". He continued, "In my view, the choice which the law makes must reassure people that the courts do have full respect for life, but that they do not pursue the principle to the point at which it has become almost empty of any real content and when it involves the sacrifice of other important values such as human dignity and freedom of choice." He concluded that English law, whilst paternalistic towards minors, respected the autonomy of adults, and quoted the decriminalization of suicide as a recognition that the principle of self-determination should in that case prevail over the sanctity of life. We should also remember that doctors generally are not trained as ethicists in any real sense of the word, even though many of them arrogate a high moral ground to their personal beliefs. Proposed legislation concerning advance directives in no way threatens the personal health care wishes of someone who believes in the sanctity of life over their own personal autonomy - they simply avoid making a living will or make an advance directive to indicate continued treatment in any circumstances (this need not place an unreasonable strain on health care resources, since an incapacitated patient has no authority to demand expensive or far-fetched treatments any more than a competent patient has; the advance directive may consent to treatment however.)

In Japan, the moral dilemmas are similar, but for totally different reasons. The Japan Times noted, with that curious candour of an outside observer, that "The view that all lives must be prolonged regardless of quality stems from the Judaeo-Christian tradition," and "the notion of equality in Anglo-Australian law over-rides concerns with QOL (Quality of Life)". A recent paper on Bible suicides1 noted that the Bible treated suicide in a factual way and not as wrong or shameful. The word sanctity comes from the same root as the word saint - both sanctity and sainthood are determined by men and the priesthood by imposing the religious parameters of their particular faith on the object or person of their sanctification. This makes us all the willing or unwilling subjects of their deliberations if we're not careful. One recalls that a "saint" was once cynically defined as "a sinner revised and edited". The suggestion that the church cuts the trappings of sanctity according to the cloth is borne out by writers who affirm that suicide was not outlawed by the Church until the Council of Braga in AD 562 on account of the fact that Christians were martyring themselves in such large numbers, wiping out their sins and being glorified. Eusebius of Caesarea describes many of these in his Historia Ecclesiastica. With the suicide of St Pelagia, St John Chrysostom argued that it must have been carried out "nuto divino", that is, a result of supposed divine inspiration, to which the presumed martyr responded with an act of heroic obedience to the Absolute Will. This generous attitude was echoed by St Ambrose. (Only selfish suicide, as a consequence of some psychological condition, has always been frowned on). St Augustine, while admitting that the Church had honoured suicides in this way, promulgated a sceptical attitude towards such cases. The respectability of suicide was threatening to erode the power structure so carefully forged by the Roman-Alexandrine version of Christianity. The teachings of St Augustine were codified in the thirteenth century by St Thomas Aquinas. In St Thomas' day, suicidal martyrdom had again become common among the Albigensians or Cathars. He developed the idea that suicide was a sin. Unfortunately, all this is of little help to the modern day sincere Christian, especially Roman Catholic, who may have only the voices of conscience and reason as friends. One liberating school of Roman Catholic thought which is still considered acceptable is that of probabilism. This teaches that, on a debated issue, it is acceptable for the person concerned to act from a position that enjoyed solid probability of being correct even though he or she is aware that the more rigorous opinion was held to be more probable. This invokes common sense on such issues that do not have an irrefutable heritage.

It might be of interest to note the finely balanced judgement of a modern day Roman Catholic professor of ethics, Dr Russell McIntyre, who came close to a personal confession of his understanding of the truth when he wrote, "My conservative nature requires that I cling fast to the sanctity of life principle, given to us in trust by a loving God. But I must also recognize that this gift, and the sacredness which accompanies it, also have limits; i.e, there comes a point in time when the gift is withdrawn and with that action the sacredness diminishes. For me, this Biblical distinction applies to life and death. The Spirit of God is given to create life; it is also withdrawn as life loses its vitality, its entelechy... My more moderate nature forces me to recognize that under the rubric of care excruciating and intractable pain is also destructive to the sanctity of life."


1.Barraclough, B (1992) The Bible Suicides. In: Acta Psychatrica Scandinavica 86(1):64-9.

2.McIntyre R (1978) Euthanasia: A Soft Paradigm for Medical Ethics. In: Linacre Quarterly, the Official Journal of the National Federation of Catholic Physicians' Guilds 45:41-54. Quoted by Gerald Larue in Euthanasia and Religion (1985) published by the Hemlock Society.
Feedback from all readers is welcome. Submissions for the Journal (printed and electronic) will be accepted by email. Being a Mensa SIG, contributions are to be by Mensans. Please include your Mensa number and country with all submissions.

© 1996 Chris Docker.

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