We largely have Christianity to thank for our faltering modern belief that human life is sacred. The ancients took a much more casual approach. Unwanted babies were abandoned to die or be rescued by strangers: like Romulus and Remus, Rome’s mythical founders, who were raised by a wolf.
Much as new lives were not automatically worth preserving, taking your own life in the ancient world wasn’t automatically bad either. Socrates’ decision to drink hemlock rather than face exile, was deemed honourable by many ancient philosophers.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Christian doctrine, though, taught that human life is sacred, because it holds a spark of the divine. Thus only God should be permitted to give or take life. The 325AD Council of Nicaea decreed that every Christian village should have a hostelry for the sick, a principle which extended to abandoned children. For the same reason, a long-standing Christian tradition forbids suicide. But as the Christian era has faded, so old debates about the beginning and end of life have re-surfaced – most recently, in the accelerating campaign to legalise assisted dying.
The latest such effort, Baroness Meacher’s Assisted Dying Bill, has been debated today in the Lords. It’s a campaign that kicked off initially as Christianity began fading in earnest, in the early 20th century, and has accelerated sharply in the last two decades.
But it’s not enough just to see this as further evidence of Christianity’s terminal illness. For even when Christendom dominated the West, the edges of life have always been vulnerable to a nudge this way or that. And this in turn shows why even non-believers should think twice about legalising such nudges — even when they’re justified in the name of choice, agency or compassion.
The “melancholy, long, withdrawing roar” of Christianity, picked up speed after World War I. When church leaders on all sides cheered on that bloodbath as a “crusade”, perhaps it’s no wonder “the Church says so” lost its shine afterwards, and “progress” began to look like ‘whatever the Church forbids’.
Unsurprisingly, campaigns challenging Church teaching on the sanctity of the beginning and end of life gathered pace in the Thirties. The Abortion Law Reform Society was founded in 1936, while the first Voluntary Euthanasia Bill was proposed even earlier, in 1931.
The Abortion Law Reform Society got its way in 1968; closely tracking this victory for individual choice, another effort was made to legalise voluntary euthanasia in 1969. Though this attempt was unsuccessful, more recent efforts have sounded an insistent drumbeat, in tandem with decline of Christian faith.
The 2001 census reported that 71.7% of Britons described themselves as Christian; by 2011 that was 59.3%, and it’s predicted to be below 50% when this year’s census data are released. And since the 1997 attempt by Labour MP Joe Ashton to introduce a Doctor Assisted Dying Bill, there have been nine further attempts, of which Meacher’s is the most recent.
The principal defence of assisted dying is that an individual of sound mind should be free to choose whether he or she continues to suffer. Many today find this convincing. But when we weight the merits of this argument, it’s worth considering some of the less-counted costs of the successful parallel campaign for ‘choice’ at life’s beginning.
Today, legal abortion in the UK is widely viewed as a core feminist victory. But while this change eased the predicament of countless women facing unwanted pregnancy, it also had wider knock-on effects. For while legalisation gave more women the option to end a pregnancy, not all of them wanted to take it.
Meanwhile, though, the fact that carrying the baby to term was now optional eased social pressure on those men who caused accidental pregnancies. One US study shows that the availability of oral contraceptives so increased demand for extra-marital sex that — because the method wasn’t 100% reliable — it also increased the rate of extra-marital pregnancies by around 15%. At the same time, another US study shows that legal abortion drove a parallel decline in shotgun marriages that far outstripped the number of accidental pregnancies forestalled by abortion.
Thus, while advocates of legal abortion believed that it would reduce instances of single motherhood, its paradoxical effect was the opposite. By relieving social pressure on men to step up after impregnating a woman, legalising abortion accelerated the prevalence of single motherhood — a phenomenon now widely recognised as a central to the feminisation of poverty.
Most women in the UK support the availability of at least some legal abortion. My aim here isn’t to re-litigate this acutely sensitive debate, but to draw out a more general implication: that when a previously unavoidable life experience becomes avoidable, wider attitudes to that experience will change. And for some, it’ll stop being a matter for sympathy.
This is the shift which justified the Right-wing depiction of single mothers pervasive during my youth in the Major years, and still widely associated with individualist Thatcherite Toryism: lazy, parasitic “welfare scroungers”. Implicitly, those who took this position assumed that because such women could have terminated a pregnancy, the duties following on having not done so should be wholly on their shoulders. In other words: if suffering is avoidable, the choice to suffer comes to be seen as wholly private.
And it’s on these grounds that we should be wary of assisted dying, regardless of our views on the immortal soul. For in practice, over the increasingly liberal 20th century, it’s been consistently the case that what looks like ‘choice’ for the well-off gets underwritten for the less wealthy by the welfare state. In the case of accidental pregnancy, for example, as single mothers grew in number others rightly sought to relieve the resulting poverty and suffering.
Again, I mention this not to re-litigate these debates and certainly not to stigmatise those who rely on these resources. Rather, I want to sound a note of pessimism about how sustainable this dynamic will be in the 21st century. For the expansion of the welfare state as underwriter of last resort for personal choice is predicated on economic growth. And this in turn relies heavily on population growth. And while that well seemed bottomless in the Peak Boomer years of the 20th century, the 21st so far has seen economic shocks, concentration of wealth in a super-elite, and a globally collapsing birth rate. In other words: the enabling conditions for a 20th-century welfare state are crumbling in front of our eyes.
We’re already seeing intensifying competition for a dwindling pot of taxpayer support, between different interest groups. Thanks to the demographics of the UK’s voting public, which skews toward the old, victory in this struggle has thus far gone to the elderly. But this may yet change, as demographics shift and belts are tightened. And history teaches us that even during the Christian era, when life was explicitly defended as sacred, scarcity has at times driven people put a thumb on the scales.
Folk songs tell of women who give birth out of wedlock and murder the newborns. And at the other end of life, even Christian European cultures sometimes practised “mercy killings” of the elderly.
In Sardinia, the femina accabadòra, the “lady of the good death” would be summoned to the bedside of someone very old or terminally ill, and after reciting a final ritual blessing would kill the sufferer with a blow to the temple, using a special hammer. The Galluras Ethnographic Museum in Luras includes an example of this implement, resting with a gothic flourish on the pillow of an empty bed. Similarly, early 20th-century ethnographic reports describe Lapot, a practice in the Carpathian mountains in which an elderly person unable to care for themselves would be ritually killed by a relative.
The common factor in such killings was a shortage of resources. That is, societies making grim choices about what to do with those so old, young or ill they’re wholly dependent on care – and to whom a community is unable or unwilling to devote the necessary resources.
And notwithstanding cruel conservative stereotypes, it’s overwhelmingly scarcity that drives the “choice” to end a pregnancy. In the US, the poorest 12% of women account for almost 50% of abortions. And a glance through women’s stories swiftly illustrates just how far the individual “choice” to end a pregnancy is often far from free, but rather a reluctant decision driven overwhelmingly by poverty.
In a world where dwindling welfare resources are ever more grudgingly funded by a shrinking working-age population, it’s easy to imagine the arguments from scarcity that will follow, ever more explicitly, upon the transformation of terminal illness into a “choice”. Indeed, they’re already foreshadowed by an assessment of assisted suicide by the Canadian government, which noted that legalisation “could reduce annual health care spending across Canada by between $34.7 million and $138.8 million”.
Those individualists now pushing to extend “choice” to the end of life are still wedded to a hyper-individualist twentieth-century mindset that relies on an ever-expanding welfare state to underwrite its freedoms. But they’re not paying attention: the age of abundance that shaped that dream of endless choice is already over.
And yet they push on. If they succeed, many people now healthy will face terminal illness in a “care” landscape created by individualists, for a society that’s enshrined “choice” over any public duty of compassion — and that can no longer afford a publicly-funded care infrastructure to pick up the pieces. I don’t want to live in a world where ‘tough-minded’ right-liberals write op-eds implying that those with terminal illnesses who refuse the Socratic way out are selfish parasites.
A cynic might argue that given all this, adjusting the statute book to allow for a 21st-century “lapot” is merely sensible. But if this is so, we should drop the rhetoric about freedom and compassion. We should be under no illusions about what this Bill is for, or about the callously neo-Roman attitude to human life that will follow in its wake.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe