Assisted dying, religion and reportage

While this isn’t as egregious a case as the News24 “news” (rather than opinion, or whatever) article on lockdown protests in Muizenberg was, the problems with Daily Maverick‘s piece on a new court challenge regarding right-to-die legislation extend beyond the clickbait headline, and merit brief comment. (As a disclaimer, I contributed columns to Daily Maverick between 2009 and 2013.)

The headline tells us that Atheists go to court over right to die, and the first paragraph speaks of how “an atheist advocate and doctor” have joined the case. Later in the (short) piece, we are told that the “friends of the court [include} Advocate Bruce Leech and Dr Paul Rowe, both atheists.”

The framing of the piece, and hence of the issues being contested, is that it’s religion versions atheism, and in particular, Christianity versus atheism.

The (atheist, in case you haven’t heard) Advocate, Bruce Leech, tells us that “Christian values are imposed directly and indirectly on people who do not necessarily share those values. I do not share these beliefs and neither does Dr Rowe.”

And yes, that’s true. It’s wrong that Christian values dictate policy for all South Africans on how to end their lives, or on any matter, because we are a constitutionally secular nation (which still accords a certain respect to religion in not insisting on a strict church/state separation, but disallowing religion from being authoritative in law).

It’s also true that the majority of South Africans say they are Christians, which we know despite terrible Win-Gallup polls or nonexistent Census data (because the religion question was dropped for the last Census). StatsSA’s 2015 Household Survey (pdf) has 85% of South Africans identifying as Christian, and while that’s sure to contain a large number who are “cultural Christians” who occasionally go to church, yet don’t think you should go to hell for being gay, we’re still a very religious and very Christian society.

And this is exactly why it’s tactically odd (to be polite) to hinge a case – or the reporting on that case – on atheism vs. religion. First, because you know in advance that you’re likely to alienate religious people who might potentially be supporters of this particular cause, second – and more importantly – because that misses the point of why end-of-life legislation needs revision in South Africa.

It’s not because of “Christian values” that we don’t allow physician-assisted suicide (at least) or (ideally, under controlled circumstances and as addressed many times on this site) euthanasia, but rather because of a quite particular (albeit widespread) iteration of “Christian values” that says you should keep someone alive at all costs, no matter how much they are suffering.

And, no matter how many weeks or months sooner you would have ended the life of your pet cat or dog if they seemed similarly outside of reasonable expectations of recovery.

Many Christians would themselves say that it’s contrary to their beliefs to keep someone who is suffering and will likely not recover alive, just because “life” (i.e. brain activity of whatever sort, rather than being alive) is not within the domain of human authority. I’ll never forget the Roman Catholic nun who chastised the atheist on a panel discussion, at some conference decades ago, for being wishy-washy on right-to-die issues, though I clearly have forgotten some details, and she’s probably in hell now.

Anyway, the point is: there’s no need to alienate a possible support base by framing this in a sectarian atheism versus religion way, when the 21st Century includes religious people who agree that – even though they might not choose to do so themselves, and should not be forced to – people should be allowed to end their lives at a time and manner of their choosing.

In defense of the legal strategy, although I know little of it, it’s certainly possible that there’s some traction in the idea of highlighting an inconsistency in how religious interests are overriding secular ones in a case like this, regardless of how much one caricatures what Christians actually believe in 2021.

But the “atheist” approach – in other words, anti-religious, in most people’s understanding – is antagonistic, and runs deeply contrary to our nation’s current disposition. The right to die in a manner and time of one’s choosing cuts across petty disputes about the intentions and desires of mystical beings, and is instead about something mentioned in the very first clause of our Constitution, “human dignity”.

Perhaps there is a legal strategy I don’t know of, but for those journalists covering this case as it proceeds, please focus on the actual issues, because they are far more important – and possibly the subject of far more consensus – than the sensational “atheist versus Christian” headlines and copy allows for.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.