Euthanasia & Assisted Suicide
A Biblical Response to a Pressing Social Issue
Posted on April 24, 2014
Note: The following essay tackles a highly sensitive and emotionally charged topic in a rather clinical way. While it is absolutely critical that Christians respond to the debate over decriminalizing euthanasia with grace and compassion for those personally affected, we must anticipate strong opposition and bolster our responses with well-reasoned defences. This essay is an effort to that end, with an ongoing prayer for the peace and comfort of God to reign over all considering these issues personally.
The topics of euthanasia and assisted suicide have sparked debate on the Canadian political landscape in recent months. Had a snap election not been called in Quebec, temporarily stalling voting on new legislation, Bill 52 may have been passed, which allows physicians to help terminally ill patients die i. More recently, Conservative MP Steven Fletcher announced his intention to introduce a private member’s bill to decriminalize physician-assisted suicide nationally. Though his own party has publicly stated that they have no intention of reopening the debate in parliament since voting against it in 2010, the announcement has garnered much media attention, in part, because Mr. Fletcher has been a quadriplegic since 1996ii. Add to this that the Supreme Court of Canada will review the current law in October 2014 and that the Canadian Medical Association is urging members to consider practical considerations of administering euthanasiaiii, and the topic has regained front-page status on newspapers across the country.
For Christians in general, this discussion is incredibly relevant. Because the majority of us hope to be years or decades away from end-of-life decisions, and certainly never expect to live with a crippling disability, we may find it easy to remain ignorant of the issue for now. However, the church provides us with the privilege and responsibility of knowing and caring for fellow members in all walks of life. We watch as somebody that we love suffers from a terminal illness, and in their pain and suffering wonder to what length and degree our Creator-God would have them endure. We look on as a friend experiences a disability that we, as the “temporarily able-bodied”iv, naively assume will severely limit their quality of life, or hear of the struggle that a family works to provide care for their elderly relative, and ask if they could not be released from the burdens which we perceive. These are hypothetical scenarios, but ones which many of us have experienced and seen in some form in the past, and which nearly all will experience first-hand in some form in the future.
The etymological definition of the term ‘euthanasia’ means a ‘good death’v. As many authors will point out however, this meaning is misleading in that it tends to portray euthanasia as a monolithic act; the reality is far more complex. A major distinction is made in most relevant literature between ‘active’ euthanasia; the practice of taking part in some kind of medical treatment which directly causes death, and ‘passive’ euthanasia; the practice of simply foregoing or ceasing treatment and allowing death to occur.vi While there certainly is not a consensus regarding euthanasia among Christians, a common theme in contemporary conservative Christian academic literature is the affirmation of some types of passive euthanasia (not preventing a patient from dying) as opposed to relatively widespread opposition to active euthanasia (assisting a patient in their death). vii This is an important distinction; while we need to ensure access to medical intervention for any patient, there is no reason for a Christian to be opposed to a patient forgoing the use of heroic measures to prolong their life if they so choose. Conversely, it must be affirmed, for a number of biblically rooted reasons discussed below, that the Christian must reject the notion and practice of active euthanasia.
3 Main Forms of Active Euthanasia:
A fully competent patient makes an informed and voluntary choice to have a medically assisted death, asks for assistance to die and gives informed consent.* (e.g. a cancer patient who experiences great pain due to their illness)
Consent is given by another party because the patient is unable to give consent. (e.g. a person who is in a persistent vegetative state)
A patient is killed without consent, though they are capable of giving it. (e.g. the murder of the physical and mentally ill, disabled and elderly under Nazi Germany’s “Aktion T4” program)
*Proposed legislation and debate in Canada mainly centres around the decriminalization of voluntary euthanasia and is the primary concern in mind for the following arguments.
A Rejection of Euthanasia as an Affirmation that Life is a Gift
The most succinct, comprehensive and holistic argument that the Christian can make against voluntary active euthanasia is, arguably, the belief that life is a gift which ought not be ended by our own doing; indeed the way that one speaks about death evidences one’s convictions about life.viii Throughout Scripture we see passages that affirm the grace of God working in the lives of individuals for good (e.g. John 10:10; Romans 15:13; Colossians 1:16), ix leading us naturally to affirm that Christians need to view their earthly lives as something bestowed by God.x Furthermore, one can draw an argument against active euthanasia by looking at the very words and commands of Jesus:
To participate in active euthanasia is a failure to love God and to love neighbour. Love of God is not merely an affirmation that He exists but a commitment to obey His commands, live in fellowship with Him, and recognize His uniqueness as our Creator and Saviour. Active euthanasia is failing to recognize the uniqueness of God as the giver of life and presuming the right to end life. How can we truly love God and yet desire to usurp His authority and right as the giver of life?
The affirmation that God is the determiner of life and death lies at the root of belief in a Creator.
The argument that life is a gift may seem appealing to Christians because of the inherent belief that God created each one with a plan in mind (Psalm 139:13), but this line of reasoning does not connect with those outside the Christian community who hold different/nonexistent views about God. It is pointed out that, like other controversial topics such as abortion and homosexual marriage, the euthanasia debate is often couched in religious versus nonreligious language (or as a debate between conservatives versus liberals).xii While it could be shown that whole volumes have been written both in defence and against euthanasia from nonreligious perspectives, invoking such arguments as the “slippery slope” and historical precedent, a campaign in defence of human rights ought not be disqualified for invoking religious language/tone or for being grounded in Judeo-Christian theology xiii Indeed, the recognition that men like William Wilberforce or Martin Luther King Jr. made that life is gift from God resulted in massive shifts in human rights causes that few argue are for the worse, despite the fact that both appealed to religious belief and language.xiv This simple realization, has massive implications when it comes to discussing and deciding on the issue of active euthanasia.
A Rejection of Euthanasia as an Affirmation of Community
A popular argument in favour of active voluntary euthanasia is the fear that many have of becoming a “burden” to those around them. There may be a recognition of the financial responsibilities that will be placed on family and loved ones, or simply the amount of time that will be required to provide the ill/disabled/elderly person with adequate care. The notion of taking one’s own life in an effort to spare others of the burden of care is regularly framed as the ‘brave’/‘heroic’ option.
However, interdependence is critical to the wellbeing of a community in general, and the church in particular. A fundamental aspect to the living out of our Christian faith is to provide for the needs of one another as brothers and sisters, thereby demonstrating Christ’s love to the world (John 13:34-35; Acts 4:32-37) . Regardless of whether the need of the other is physical, financial or spiritual, “[providing care] is a crucial act for witnessing our celebration of their lives and ours”; xv it allows us to affirm the role that each has within the community and our continued interdependence on one another through the unity of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:3).
Of course, some will respond with despair at the thought of ceasing to make a meaningful contribution to the community as they struggle with pain and limitations during end-of-life stages of illness (e.g. advanced cancer). While our heart breaks for those who are suffering and we grieve as our loved ones endure pain in their last days, we must seek to recognize the ongoing display of God’s goodness during these difficult times:
...it is a matter of not killing ourselves, even if we are in pain, as a way of affirming our continued contribution and affirmation of the goodness and care of the [the church]. In other words, our unwillingness to kill ourselves even under pain is an affirmation that the trust that has sustained us in health is also the trust that sustains us in illness and distress... xvi
It is within the confines of community, where our needs are known and cared for by one another, that members (e.g. family, friends, etc…) can flourish,xvii and the grace of God can be clearly seen.
A Rejection of Euthanasia as an Affirmation of God’s Faithfulness
Opponents of a religious argument against voluntary active euthanasia will sometimes make the argument that the traditional Judeo-Christian perspective contradicts the tenet of the free will of the individual. In particular, Alvaro Vargas Llosa argues that a person must be able to decide their own fate, and that forcing the spirit to suffer alongside the body undermines the notion that the Spirit is of higher importance that the body.xvii Firstly, it must be affirmed that denying an individual the right to choose to die does not take away their will in shaping how they will die. xix More importantly however (and arguments against the overt dualism present here aside), Llosa’s view fails to take into account the ministry of Christ himself, who showed deep concern for the earthly body as well as the heavenly soul; healing the sick, raising the dead, sending out the disciples to heal and empowering the Church for healing ministry.xx Indeed, a rejection of voluntary active euthanasia not only does not deny the notion of free will, but it actually affirms the faithfulness of the Creator-God who both gives and takes away (Job 1:21). xxi
A Rejection of Euthanasia as an Affirmation of Compassionate Approaches
Suffering, illness and death are all direct results of the Fall suffered as a result of sin and will one day be reversed (Revelation 24:1). Suffering is not the norm. Death is not a part of the created order. Suffering, illness, disease and death cannot be affirmed even where they are seemingly irreversibly present.xxii At the same time, suffering cannot be the excuse that one uses for ending one’s life, as has already been discussed. In an essay on the rights of persons with disabilities, Stanley Hauerwas notes that, though suffering from cancer and suffering from hunger are two vastly different experiences, both are horrific in their lengthy process of decay which eventually results in death.xxiii However, one would not argue that the hungry person ought to be killed prematurely simply because the end result of hunger is death. Instead, one would think that the reasonable response would be a compassionate one; working to alleviate the suffering caused by hunger even if this cannot be done indefinitely. By extending this line of thinking, one would not be able to justify prematurely killing a cancer patient, simply because the end result of their suffering is also death. Rather, the compassionate response is needed where the suffering of the cancer patient is alleviated to the greatest degree, even if this cannot be done indefinitely. Rejecting active voluntary euthanasia opens the door to compassionate forms of care, where family and loved ones have an opportunity to show compassion. As Stassen and Gushee point out, there are a number of ways to affirm compassionate approaches to suffering and death while opposing voluntary active euthanasia:
The way to meet the legitimate needs of the suffering and dying is through enhanced pain management (palliative care), hospice care and other creative and loving efforts to assure, as far as possible, a good process of dying...recent advances in palliative care have...reached a level of effectiveness such that suffering thought at first to be intractable can almost always be relieved.xxiv
Finally, because the fear of suffering is often worse than the suffering itself, it is necessary for caregivers, physicians and pastors to provide adequate care which addresses those fears.xxv
A recent survey suggested that 68% of Canadians support the legalization of assisted suicide.xxvi This is a significant level of public support that will likely lead to an increasingly intense and determined debate on the subject in the coming years. Furthermore, it means that Christians should expect to hold an unpopular opinion here, as we similarly find ourselves on a number of important social issues. Christian ethicists, Stassen and Gushee, succinctly and thoroughly summarize the Christian response to further societal steps towards the increased legalization of voluntary active euthanasia:
Until Jesus returns and brings an end to illness and death at last, God’s will is that every sick human being be treated with dignity and compassion, receive curative treatments, enjoy family community, benefit from pain relief - and die only when their time has really come...Christians must hold the line against the encroachment of euthanasia and assisted suicide...We can best do so by offering compassionate care that meets the needs of the ill and the dying, and their families.xxvii
With these thoughts in mind, it is important for believers to pray that the God of grace may grant all believers the power to trust in His sovereign will, following in the example of Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, to the glory of the Father.
If you would like to discuss this essay with me further, feel free to drop by the church office to chat, or send me an email with your thoughts [email protected].
iJanet Davidson, "Quebec's 'dying with dignity' law would set new standards," CBC Canada, February 17, 2014 (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/quebec-s-dying-with-dignity-law-would-set-new-standards-1.2537259)
iiChristina Spencer, "Disabled Conservative MP looks to bring assisted dying out of 'the shadows' with private member's bills," National Post, March 26, 2014 (http://news.nationalpost.com/2014/03/26/disabled-conservative-mp-looks-to-bring-assisted-dying-out-of-the-shadows-with-private-members-bills/)
iiiSheryl Ubelacker, "MDs need to prepare for eventual legalized assisted suicide, some doctors argue," Winnipeg Free Press, April 7, 2014 (http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/arts-and-life/life/health/mds-need-to-prepare-for--eventual-legalized-assisted-suicide-some-doctors-argue-254211831.html)
ivSpecial thanks to Dr. Heidi Janz for this soberingly insightful term ("TAB"), and for her expertise in reviewing and critiquing this essay.
vAbigail Rian Evans, Is God Still at the Bedside? The Medical, Ethical and Pastoral Issues of Death and Dying (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2011), 61.
viGlen H. Stassen and David P. Gushee. Kingdom Ethics: Following Jesus in Contemporary Context (Downers Grove, Ill: IVP Academic, 2003), 244.
viiStassen and Gushee, 244.
viiiStanley Hauerwas and Richard Bondi. “Memory, Community, and the Reasons for Living: Reflections on Suicide and Euthanasia (1976).” in The Hauerwas Reader (ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright; Duke Press, 2001), 581.
ixUnless otherwise indicated all Bible references in this paper are to the English Standard Version: (ESV) (Wheaton: Crossway, 2001).
xHauerwas and Bondi, 585.
xiThomas J. Demy and Gary P. Stewart, ed., Suicide: A Christian Response: Crucial Considerations for Choosing Life (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998), 415.
xiiEmily Jackson and John Keown. Debating Euthanasia (Oxford: Hart Publishing, 2012), 136.
xiiiJackson and Keown, 137.
xivJackson and Keown, 137.
xviiArthur J Dyck, Life’s Worth: The Case Agains Assisted Suicide (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002), 50.
xviiiLlosa, Alvaro Vargas. “Religious Objections to Assisted Suicide Contradict the Premise of Free Will.” in Assisted Suicide (ed. Sylvia Engdahl. Farmington Hills, MI: Greenhaven Press, 2009), 69.
xixRobert N. Wennberg, Terminal Choices: Euthanasia, Suicide, and the Right to Die. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 184.
xxStassen and Gushee, 238.
xxiiStanley Hauerwas, “Should Suffering be Eliminated? What the Retarded Have to Teach Us (1984).” in The Hauerwas Reader (ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright; Duke Press, 2001), 565.
xxivStassen and Gushee, 250.
xxvStassen and Gushee, 250.
xxviMary Agnes Welch, “63% Support assisted suicide,” Winnipeg Free Press, April 5, 2014 (http://www.winnipegfreepress.com/local/63-support-assisted-suicide-254004521.html)
xxviiStassen and Gushee, 251.