Advent I

Sunday 2 December, 2001

 

Today is the First Sunday in Advent. On these four Sundays it is customary for Christians to be thinking about the Four Last Things: Death, Judgement, Heaven and Hell. Todayís subject therefore is Death.

There are two quite different aspects of Death that we shall cover this morning. The first, Making Oneís Will, is something which I always mention on these occasions. The second aspect, Euthanasia, or so-called mercy-killing is of particular relevance because of two things which happened last week.

On the subject of will making let me urge every adult here this morning seriously to consider, if you have not already done so recently, making or revising your Last Will and Testament so as to tell your relations and friends what you want them to do with any worldly goods which you may possess in the event of your unforeseen death.

It matters not that you may be young and in the best of health. I myself made my first will on my eighteenth birthday, (though it has of course been revised since then) and here I am today, still alive. IN the midst of life we are in death. The number of times that a sudden and tragic death of someone who hasnít made their will or at least appointed someone to be their executor has added to the grief of their bereaved friends and family is great. Even in the case of a happy family, someone who dies intestate that is to say without leaving a will, however few their possessions generates whole areas of uncertainty at what is bound to be a very uncertain time anyway. Besides, for us Christians there is the duty of stewarding our worldly goods in a responsible way. So no matter who you are, or however poor you may be, for Godís sake make a Will which leaves it beyond doubt whom you would like to be responsible for managing your estate (which includes, of course, paying anyone to whom you may be owing money) and whether you have any particular bequests that certain items should go to named people. Thereís a saying in the undertakersí trade I understand which goes "Where thereís a will, thereís relations". Well, where there isnít a will thereís bound to be some quite unnecessarily bewildered and unhappy relations as well.

 

Let us now think for a few minutes about the matter of Euthanasia, or the deliberate killing of people who are in serious pain or who have for any reason expressed a wish to die.

There are two particular reasons for considering this today. Last week, as you probably know, Mrs Diane Prettie, who suffers from severe Multiple Sclerosis (or MS as it is sometime known) was given the verdict of the House of Lords refusing her request for her husband to be allowed to help kill her when she asked him to some time in the future. The second reason is that, by coincidence, there was a meeting in the Houses of Parliament addressed by the American lawyer, Mr Wesley Smith, who has made a careful study of the way in which Euthanasia is being practised already throughout the world, but particularly in America and Holland where in some respects anyway, it has become an accepted practice already.

Winston Smith began by reminding us that we have a Christian duty to relieve pain especially when it is being suffered by other people. Pain relief, sympathy, support, comfort are all part of our remit, not only towards those of our own kith and kin but, like the Good Samaritan, to anyone whom we may encounter.

With this in mind we can only thank God for the growth over the past fifty years of what is called the Hospice Movement, founded a short distance away from here by Dame Cecily Saunders in Sydenham. Thanks to the work and research which has been done at St Christopherís Hospice and other such places the science of Pain Control and relief has progressed out of all recognition from where it was even fifty years ago, to the point that, except in the case of a very few difficult cases people can be helped to live out the last days of their life in a relatively pain-free and dignified manner. Harking back for a moment to what was said about making a Will itís worth saying that if you do have any money to spare, a bequest to a Hospice is a particularly appropriate way of disposing of some of it.

Winston Smith went on to remind us that there is all the difference in the world between administering pain-killing drugs in sufficient amounts to bring relief to the patient, but which unintentionally have the effect of hastening their death, and administering them with the deliberate intention of killing the patient. He drew our attention to the fact that for more than two thousand years the aim of medicine has been to promote the health and wellbeing of the patient, and it is only in the past hundred that the use of it deliberately to kill them has even been contemplated. So what has happened recently to make the difference?

Well, two things in particular have brought this about. One is the idea that human pain caused by disease is the ultimate evil. Whilst agreeing that pain is undoubtedly an evil, we Christians must be quite clear that it is only one evil to be considered alongside several others in any given case. Falsehood, betrayal, disobedience and negligence cause just as much suffering, mental, physical and spiritual, as the most serious illness. Set against the pain caused to the human race by the evils deliberately perpetrated by one man or group of men against another, illness and pain are seen to be more controllable.

But the other, more serious reason why Euthanasia has come into the forefront of peopleís minds is a more sinister one.

All over the world there are learned people who have realised that if only they can control where and how people die it puts them in a much stronger position to manipulate the human race in the direction that they believe it should go. Such people go by the rather fancy name of bioethicists and they include people like Peter Singer, the Australian now in the USA and a professor at one of their most highly esteemed university, Philip Nitski, and Novokian who so I understand, is presently in prison for having put these ideas into practice on a large scale in America.

All these people attach great importance to what they call the Quality of Life of an individual. They claim to be able to know whose life is worth living and whose isnít. Peter Singer even goes so far as to have developed a whole scale of values which places the lives of some humans lower in the scale than some animals. In other words he has rediscovered this idea of sub-humanism which was so popular in Germany under the direction of Adolf Hitler.

Now, there isnít time this morning to go into all the reasons why these bioethicists have simply got it wrong. If you would like to find out more you can buy Wesley Smithís book The Culture of Death from the organisation ALERT at 27 Walpole Street, London SW3. What is more to the point is to realise the strategy employed by those who seek to promote this particular cause. It has a sickening familiarity.

First of all they think up a more socially-acceptable word to describe what they are trying to do. Just as "termination" sounds so much better than "abortion" so "euthanasia" has a much more acceptable ring to it than "assisted suicide".

Secondly they begin, very gently, to get people used to the idea that in some cases it may be not only appropriate but even the bounden duty of the caring professions to (as they would describe it) "put such people out of their misery. Thirdly they come up with a whole raft of new concepts like Quality of Life, Futile Care, Right to Choose, and so forth. Finally they bring forward some really difficult cases where public sympathy is likely to be on their side, and present them in such a way as to make anyone who opposes their ideas seem to be positively uncaring if not downright cruel. They then highlight and exaggerate all these difficulties in order to make these particular victims the focal point for their case.

If you want to know what happens when they succeed in getting the public ear, just go to Holland. What was put forward as a simple, humane procedure for alleviating the sufferings of a few unfortunate people has turned out to be a licence for widespread killing of people who have no wish to die at all but whose continued existence is a drain on the resources of their health services, to say nothing of the relations of the sick person. Elderly people in Holland are now afraid to go to the doctor for fear that they should start a process which leads to their being persuaded that itís their duty to die in order to improve the quality of life of others.

But donít just take my word for it. Get in touch with ALERT if you want to know more. Their phone number is in the London telephone directory.

 

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