Further exchanges on 'Euthanasia'

Further exchanges with Dr Wood (beginning to get somewhere(?)) and a correspondence with Brian Anderson, a member of the Executive of the VES and a retired Anglican Priest now ministering to a Unitarian congregation. If you have any comments on these exchanges email them and I will try to post them.

George Wood 14 July 1999

Dear Mr Beale, I had not intended to write to you again, but I could not let your outrageous comment lie unanswered.

Without knowing anything at all about the people who wrote to me, you describe them as "deluded/evil". They were mostly old, desperate people, so grateful to have found some one to express for them the thoughts and wishes that haunt them constantly. People who pray every morning that they will not see another day. Tormented people who cannot find a friendly hand to help them to the one thing that dominates their every moment, an early and comfortable release from their suffering. I was moved almost to tears by these letters.

Evil? Yes there is a sense of evil about this correspondence, but it does not come from the people who wrote in my support. It comes from the heartless bigots who glory that the weak and hopeless are not permitted to seek relief from their suffering, and claim divine sanction for their bigotry.

And you can add two more letters in support and one "neutral" since my last communication.

Nicholas Beale 15 July 1999

This correspondence makes it abundantly clear that you have no rational arguments in support of your position, and have to resort entirely to emotive appeals and insults (does 'evil' mean anything to you other than an insult? if so I would be genuinely interested to know what you do mean by it). That the plight of the "old desperate people" who wrote to you is pitiable cannot be doubted, and the worst aspect is that, due to the efforts of people parading groundless 'complete certainty' they have cut themselves off from the spiritual reality which alone can give hope and meaning to their lives. People with faith not only live longer but are far more likely to be able to face death with dignity. But surely you would be the first to argue that old and desperate people are quite likely to be deluded as well. But if the deliberate slaughter of hundreds of thousands of human beings, even if the majority have been tricked, coerced or deluded into giving their consent, is a grave evil, those who advocate such a course of action must logically be either deluded or evil.

You know very well that I am a Christian, and there are many Christian reasons against 'voluntary euthanasia'. But Prof Horner and I have given you 13 non-religious reasons, and you can find no rational answer to any of them.

If you have a rational reply to any of these reasons I will post it, and I will continue to pray for you and for your correspondents.

George Wood 18 July 1999

This correspondence makes it abundantly clear that by "rational" you mean any argument you agree with and by "irrational", any argument you
disagree with. You have also made clear that you regard any one with a different ethical system from yours as evil and any one who does not subscribe to your particular superstitions as deluded.  It is also obvious from your previous statements that either you know a good deal less than I do about IQ, psychology and education, or you have deliberately used partial, unqualified statements in attempts to devalue comments I have made. As for resorting to insults, any that have emanated from this side of the correspondence have never been any other than replies to your own.

I cannot conduct a dialogue with your sort of person.  This is a final communication.

Nicholas Beale 24 July 1999

I'm sorry if you have misunderstood my position in this way.  By 'rational' I mean "rooted in reason or reasoned argument". The only time you responded to any of our reasons with anything other than a flat contradiction or an emotional appeal was in your breadknife-waving; even though it must have been obvious to a person of your intelligence I patiently explained the fallacy and got no response.  What is clear from this correspondence is that there are rational non-religious arguments against Voluntary Euthanasia, but that you do not find them persuasive.  You said in your letter to The Times that you would be glad to hear them, but perhaps this was more rhetorical than truthful.
  Of course I don't regard "anyone with a different ethical system" as evil.  Muslims, Jews and many atheists and agnostics are against 'Euthanasia'.  But surely you can see that to advocate the deliberate killing of hundreds of thousands of your fellow citizens is a serious matter.  Suppose someone seriously advocated the liquidation of everyone who had had a letter published in The Times as soon as they retired (a much smaller number than the deaths that would be caused by Euthanasia).  They might sincerely believe that this was morally right, in which case they are deluded, or they may not, in which case surely they are, in some sense, evil.
  I have no idea what you know about IQ etc.. It sounds as though it is all seriously out of date.  Have you read, for example, Three Seductive Ideas (Harvard University Press 1998) by Prof Jerome Kagan (which got a rave review in Science by the way) and what Prof Kagan says about Intelligence?
 As always, I will probably post any reply, so that others can learn from our exchange.  But if you cannot conduct a dialogue on this basis, so be it.

George Wood 24 July 1999

Of course I don't advocate the deliberate killing of hundreds of thousands of my fellow citizens.   Why do you accuse me of this?  I simply ask that I should be permitted to determine the time and manner of my own death. Your opposition to this is simply based on religious prejudice.  How would you like my ethical system to be forced on you by law?  You have never addressed this question, which was the main issue raised in my letter to The Times.

I will not discuss the red herrings that you continually try to substitute for the real issue, which is TOLERANCE.  Never was a Christian virtue!

Nicholas Beale 25 July, 1999

There is no law against suicide.  You were (apparently) calling for legalising Voluntary Euthanasia ie the intentional killing of people who apparently wish to die by medical staff.  This is legal in Holland and 4,500 people per year are killed in this way: scaling it up for the UK population suggests that the death toll would be 17,000pa, or over 400,000 per generation (25 years). If you are not advocating the deliberate killing of hundreds of thousands then you are either (a) not advocating legalised Voluntary Euthanasia or (b) advocating a form which would have substantially lower deaths per million inhabitants than the Dutch model or (c) advocating it for a short period of time.  If I have misunderstood your position I apologise, but could you explain which of (a-c) applies?
  At least it seems clear from your reply that you would agree that "TOLERANCE" is not always the right response to advocates of mass killing.
 BTW Do we at least agree that there are rational non-religious arguments against Voluntary Euthanasia, but that you do not find them persuasive?

George Wood 26 July 1999

Once again you are guilty of semantic misdemeanors.  I think part of the problem I have communicating with you is that you do not address yourself to me but to a perceived vast audience of bendable minds out there on the internet.
  This correspondence is about voluntary euthanasia, defined as killing a person at that person's request.  There is an obvious difference between killing a person who wants to die and killing a person who doesn't.  To fail to make that distinction in a correspondence in which it is the core is to engage in verbal chicanery.
 You said: "to advocate the killing of hundreds of thousands of your fellow citizens is a serious matter".  If you had said: "to advocate voluntary euthanasia for hundreds of thousands ... is a serious matter" I could only agree.  The complete non sequitur that followed is a good example of how sloppy expression leads to false reasoning.  It also leads you to the nonsense of your last communication.
 VE is not legal in Holland.  It is practiced with the tacit agreement of the government that no prosecutions will follow providing certain conditions are met.  It has been so successful that legislation to make it fully legal is now in progress.
 Your calculation does show that, unless there is a change in the law (which fortunately seems quite likely to happen) hundreds of thousands of people will be denied the right to exercise their own moral preferences.  I ask you again:  why do you wish to deny them this right?  Why should your morals be enforced by law on people who think differently?
  So, using words with their proper meaning, tolerance of mass killings would be wrong, but tolerance of voluntary euthanasia is entirely the right response.
 In correspondence with a Catholic archbishop thirty years ago, he told me that every individual's primary duty is to his own conscience, even if this meant committing what the Church regarded as a sin.  I thought this was a pretty reasonable theological position, though I did not like his caveat, which for the time being I will not reveal.

Nicholas Beale 27 July 1999

I think we have established that you are advocating a legal position analogous to that of Holland, with hundreds of thousands of people being killed.  Of course there is a distinction between killing people at their request and killing people against their will, and one of the fundamental differences between us is a genuine disagreement as to whether people can permanently 'sign away' the most basic of human rights (Can you give any other examples where this is OK?)  But it is still killing.

Brian Anderson's Letter to The Times

see here.

My reply to him

Dear Mr Anderson, Firstly, I think I can well understand some of your feelings on the death of your father - my own father died of Cancer after a long illness in 1985, and I was privileged to be with him at the end. There have been enormous advances in palliative medicine since 1951 (and indeed since 1985) and further advances are being made all the time. More recently an old friend died of cancer in Charing Cross: for the last week she was prescribed Champagne and Diamorphine and died just after dawn with the words "I think I'm taking off now". Even now, 99.9% of hospitalised deaths can be relatively painless, and if research on palliative care continues at the present pace, this percentage will increase to 100% in the next few years. So although I think I can see why a few high profile Christians might have founded the VES in 1935, sincerely believing that the only alternative was that millions would die in agony, that rationale has now surely disappeared.

In addition to the religious objections to 'Voluntary Euthanasia' there are now seen to be many non-religious objections, some of which Prof. Stuart Horner and I have posted on the web at www.starcourse.org/euthanasia.htm . We'd be very grateful for any comments you may have, and we would be happy to post on the website any rational objections you may have to them.

Finally, my daughter and I, who read the letter together, were confused about how you could with integrity claim to be both a Revd. and also claim to be 'agnostic about life after death' (given the creed, the Bible and the Resurrection). But it seems (although I cannot confirm this) that you are a Unitarian and therefore, as I understand it, are not even formally committed to the Creeds that are shared by most of the Christian churches.

If you have any reply to this we'd hope to post it on the website, so that others can benefit from this exchange as well. Nicholas Beale

Brian's reply 16 July

Dear Mr Beale, Many thanks for your response to my letter in The Times. I have had a huge response in support and only one mildly questioning my position (apart from yours) - that came from an Archimandrite in Bulgaria. Also one letter from an atheist who feels that the spiritual issues are a load of baloney anyway! One letter came from a delightful crank or joker who claimed to have been plucked up by a UFO on July 4th. I'm not quite sure just how he managed to get a copy of The Times or how he posted his letter to me!

On the matter of painful deaths or those who do not receive benefit from palliative care, the figures that both the hospice movement and the BMA claim is that 5% of people dying a painful death do not respond satisfactorily to palliative care. I think that it is for that 5% that I would wish for the choice of voluntary euthanasia. The word choice is of paramount importance. Sadly only 5% of all deaths occur in hospices. I am very much a supporter of the hospice movement, by the way.

In the same way, choice is important in matters of faith. Actually I am an Anglican priest who is ministering to a Unitarian congregation with full knowledge of and permission of my bishop. I do not exercise my Anglican Orders at the moment. I needed a space/sabbatical when I retired after many years in the full-time prison ministry and the people of this church here in Portsmouth asked me to lead them. This I am very happily doing.

I was using the word agnostic in its true sense. I was meaning that I cannot know about life after death or even that it exists. That is a matter of faith and belief. I happen to believe that the human soul continues to exist in some way, but that I cannot know that it does or how it does.

I have always taken the view that honest doubt is not the opposite of faith (or even the enemy of faith) but that certainty is the opposite of faith and may even be the enemy of it. I find that when explained in this way people grow in faith without the fear of dishonesty or having their integrity outraged - a reason, I find, why many are abandoning faith or leaving the Church. Or to put it another way, dishonest belief is a greater danger to faith than honest disbelief or doubt.

For me, credal and biblical teaching can never be, per se, matters of truth. They are matters of belief and faith, some of which I accept and some of which I reject. To state that personal stance in no way undermines my depth of spirituality or love of God.

I have no objection to you putting this on your website because none of what I have written is private. It's deeply personal, yes, and I speak for nobody else, but I might not have time to respond to much feedback. In spite of being semi retired, I am very busy!

I find a richness and an integrity in diversity of belief which sadly "blanket" credalism does not by definition allow for. I also have found that a huge number of rather more outwardly orthodox Christian believers have honoured my openness in a most touching way - not least many clergy - Anglican Methodist, Roman Catholic and United Reformed who feel "trapped" in their spirituality where they are and yet who for many (often family and financial) reasons are unable to move. I have a little ministry towards them just in this one area.

A heretic is one who chooses what he or she believes (what he or she is able to believe) and not one who is told what to believe. It is in that way that I am a heretic, I suppose, and happy to be so! A huge number of people who say the creeds week by week will, if they are honest, admit that they really are not sure that they believe what they are saying Sunday by Sunday. I know that first hand from my parish priest days and many more have confirmed it since to me when I go on pre-funeral pastoral visiting.

Finally, the last Primus of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, the late Bishop Alastair Haggart, was also convenor of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society of Scotland. I am not at liberty for reasons of confidentiality to tell you of the numbers of clergy of all denominations who are members of the VES but there are very many including bishops. That in itself does not justify the rightness or wrongness of voluntary euthanasia - again it is a matter of choice.

Thanks again for writing. All best wishes, Brian (Anderson)

My response to Brian 17 July

Dear Brian, Thank you for your very interesting and thoughtful response to my email, which raises a great many issues! Can I divide them into two strands: those relating to euthanasia and those relating to faith?

It is, to say the least, not widely understood that the VES is only advocating euthanasia in cases where people do not respond to palliative care. Does this mean that if medical advances over the next few years mean that excessive pain and suffering can be eliminated for every dying patient by palliative care, the VES would disband itself? DR Wood, for example, seems to want euthanasia for people who are just fed up with being fit octogenarians. There does seem to be a fundamental tension between euthanasia and palliative care. As I understand it the hospice movement is strongly against euthanasia, for reasons I can well understand. Apart from anything else, legalising euthanasia would surely undermine funding for palliative care and research in this area, since euthanasia is much more cost-effective. I'd be really interested in your comments on the points Prof Horner and I raise in that area.

As you may imagine I am not an admirer for the present Primus, who in my view should certainly have carried out his stated intention of resigning to stand as an MSP, and from what you tell me his predecessor was no better!

On faith, I wonder if you are not applying a double standard here? I know my wife and children love me - I am not 'agnostic' - even though it would be impossible to perform a conclusive scientific experiment to demonstrate it to the ultimate sceptic, and even though one can sometimes have moments of doubt! The fundamental attitude of faith to the creeds seems to me to be "I believe; I know I don't fully understand but I trust God to lead me gently deeper into the inexhaustible riches of His Way, Truth, Life and Love." To put it another way, faith involves a certainty of trust, which remains a certainty even when tempered by doubt ("my god, my god, why have you forsaken me?"), but must not involve a certainty of understanding. Because, to quote the great Bp Richard, "if you talk about My God, my own little possession... then what you have is not the true and living God...but an Idol...an attempt to make Gods of ourselves, by launching ego-projections into the middle distance - plop - and then having an affair with that ego-projection". So, whilst agreeing that the wrong kind of certainty is the enemy of faith, it also seems to me that the wrong kind of selection is also the enemy of faith, because there is no real commitment and trust involved. It seems to me that, if you love someone, then you have to love the whole person, even though there are some aspects of their personality that you find more attractive than others; the moment you put yourself in the position of choosing which bits you will love and which bits you will reject then you love becomes an illusion: you can no more love a convenient selection than you can a convenient abstraction. I am not, of course, presuming to say that your own attitude is either of the 'wrong kinds' but that in our consumerist tabloid society we seem far more aware of the dangers of the first pitfall than the second.