|Cosmo Lang, Lord Archbishop of Canterbury|
In 1936, Anglican Archbishop Cosmo Lang objected in the British House of Lords to a bill that would legalize the practice of voluntary euthanasia, which he admitted was suicide.
It is one thing to admit exceptions to the principle that a man may not lay down his life, and it is another thing to give public statutory authority to the counter principle and to say that in certain cases a man, in his own interests and for his own sake, may bring his life to an end. Can we dismiss from our minds the possibility that advantage might be taken of any such public recognition of the counter principle in cases, different indeed from those contemplated by this Bill but which would not be regarded as morally different?Anglican Archbishop Lang seems to have been a modern-thinking churchman who believed there was an exception to every moral law. He denied there was a religious component to his objection, since bringing the laws of God into the discussion would not be considered a valid argument among the British Lords. I understand Lang as having meant that “we” who have special knowledge about these things do admit exceptions to the prohibition of suicide, but that we should not make suicide legal, because by doing so we would publicly state that people can take their own lives. Period. If we do so, “advantage might be taken.”
I suggest that we cannot dismiss from our minds the possible unforeseen effects upon the public conscience of, for the first time, giving definite legal encouragement to the principle that there are circumstances in which a man for his own sake may bring his life to an end.”
Lang was aware of the human tendency to ignore subtleties. If suicide is made legal for hard cases, he was saying, the average person will soon come to believe that suicide is permissible in all cases.
This goes along with one of my personal observations, that whatever you legalize, you normalize. Appeals to make changes to the laws about morality are always boosted with slogans that call upon our compassion with arguments based on the hard cases, but then once the law changes, the exception becomes the norm.
During my lifetime, cohabitation, contraception, divorce, and abortion were all legalized. Before legalization, the only people who did these acts were those who were willing to be lawbreakers and risk social censure. After legalization, all of these formerly exceptional things became normal, frequent, and almost universally approved for just about any reason. Just for one example, the legalization of abortion has led to the routine murder of around a million babies in their mothers’ wombs in the United States alone every year. And few of those abortions are for “hard cases.”
Back to Archbishop Lang’s speech before the House of Lords. Lang went on to express quite valid specific concerns about the capacity of anyone in pain to make a sound judgment about whether or not to choose euthanasia and about how relatives might put pressure on a weakened person to choose euthanasia for their own nefarious reasons. And he ended with another prophetic phrase, “if the door is once unlocked it will soon be opened wide.” Indeed.
Lang gave his arguments only six years after the 1930 Lambeth conference released a resolution that reversed the Christian teaching of the immorality of birth control.
The 1930 Lambeth resolution essentially read: ‘Where there is a clearly felt moral obligation [by married men and women Ed.] to limit or avoid parenthood, complete abstinence is the primary and obvious method,” and it expressed “strong condemnation of the use of methods of conception-control from motives of selfishness, luxury, or mere convenience.” But it admitted the legitimacy of these methods if there was morally sound reasoning for avoiding abstinence. “The Conference agrees that other methods may be used, provided that this is done in the light of Christian principles.'”
The appeal for a merciful decision to allow contraception for hard cases opened the door. Of course, the average person did not pay attention to the qualifications, and most people just saw that contraception was now allowed. As Lang himself could have predicted, over the ensuing decades the door swung wide open.
By the end of the 1950s, “contraception was a way of life” for most Anglicans. And today the “Contraception” page on the Church of England website reads, “Contraception is not regarded as a sin or going against God’s purpose. Anglican thinking changed during the 20th Century from concern about increased use of contraception to official acceptance of it.”
By the time of the 1958 Lambeth Conference, contraception was a way of life among most Anglicans, and a resolution was passed to the effect that the responsibility for deciding upon the number and frequency of children was laid by God upon the consciences of parents ‘in such ways as are acceptable to husband and wife’.All the other denominations followed, and only the Catholic Church maintained this consistent Christian teaching that use of artificial methods of limiting births is a grave sin.
In 1968, the Lambeth Conference considered the Papal Encyclical Humanae Vitae and while recording their appreciation of the Pope’s deep concern for the institution of marriage and family life, the Bishops disagreed with his idea that methods of contraception other than abstinence and the rhythm method are contrary to the will of God.”
And take abortion as another example. It has gotten to the point, forty-three years after abortion was legalized in 1973 for hard and difficult cases, that now abortion is now being thought of no longer as a difficult but necessary choice, but instead it is being celebrated as a positive good. While those who initially campaigned for legalization called for the "right" of a woman to make the "difficult decision" without being accountable to anyone else, now celebrities brag about having had abortions, some women wear tee shirts advertising their abortions, some comediennes, such as Margaret Cho and others, tell stories of their abortions to get laughs as part of their stand-up comedy routines, and a #ShoutYourAbortion hashtag is making its way around Twitter.
"It [abortion] is supposed to make us a bad person. But I must say, I never felt that. I used to sit and try and figure out how old the child would be, trying to make myself feel guilty. But I never could! I think the person who said: 'Honey, if men could get pregnant, abortion would be a sacrament' was right.—Gloria SteinemPart of Amy Schumer's routine is a supposedly funny story about how awkward it was for her to go to the birthday party of a friend's little girl, because the girl would not be alive to celebrate any birthday parties if her mother had listened to Schumer's advice to abort the child before she was born.
“There’s nothing more awkward than going to the first birthday party of a little girl when you told her mom to get rid of her—because the kid can tell.”—Amy SchumerI predict that in a similar way, as euthanasia is made legal in more and more places, and when euthanasia comes to be seen as normal in just about everybody's mind, as it then will be, people will put down their sick relatives as easily as they now put down their ailing pets, even though the young hip ones may not go so far as to create a Twitter hashtag #IPutDownMyMom or #IPutDownMyToddler.
This post is an expanded excerpt from The Shifting Debate About Euthanasia and Eugenics: Some Other Words for Murder, which I recently posted at the Dappled Things blog, Deep Down Things.
 The Lambeth Conference is a gathering of Anglican bishops that is held at the Archbishop of Canterbury’s Lambeth Palace at approximately ten-year intervals.