Issues at the End of Life

Brendan McCarthyPresented by Revd Dr. Brendan McCarthy, National Adviser on Medical Ethics and Health and Social Care Policy, Church of England


As an adviser to the C of E on medical ethics, Brendan outlined the ‘back story’ to the debate on assisted suicide. He articulated a theological reservoir from the following sources of thinking:

God the life giver; God as Trinity (relationships); God incarnate (implications); God the Redeemer; God as justice; God as community (the body of Christ)

However, none are specific to medical ethics. How then should we engage in debate with a nation that does not always share these (theological) views.

Everyone has a ‘reservoir’ of some sort – which can lead to a set of principles, which underpin decision-making in this field.

Four principles emerge – significance of/ argument about the order, especially 3 and 4

–          Affirming life

–          Caring for the vulnerable

–          Building a caring community

–          Respecting individuals

These become the point of engagement with a variety of people/groups

Principles can only guide. Acceptance of a moral spectrum – from utopia (heaven) to the despicable (hell). Does the suggested practice sit with the principles set out above?

Normative – anti-normative

Importance of the middle ground – the non-normative

Working things out in practice


1. Personal autonomy – is this an acceptable value? (Margot McDonald in Scotland)

The Church’s goal:  to make a contribution to the debate, rather than to win it

Attitudes to the church – what the church is thought to stand for?  Inflexibility/ dogma

Balancing individual and other demands (social, community need)

Back to the question of autonomy – Is this is paramount?  If so, there are huge implications for policies on health care, human rights/ criminal law

Equal intrinsic value – this varies from place to place (re the young/ the old/ the sick) – cultural mores.

2.  The church articulates an aspiration

An Anglican debate – middle axioms

The Catholic approach is ‘different’

Is coercion acceptable?  Of Christian legislation/ or anti-Christian legislation.

An acceptance of pluralism – the church must argue its point as must secularists.  Secularists can also be dogmatic.

3.  The ‘meaning’ of suffering – how to ‘manage’ this without a religious discourse

We cannot eliminate suffering but we can resist it. Is assisted suicide simply a (premature) rejection of suffering?


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