Issues Concerning Euthanasia
Written by Iain Smith
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Reformed Ethics - Euthanasia

 

Recently, in Tasmania, a Euthanasia Bill presented by the Green Party was defeated. This article by Mr Smith was widely circulated and helped to that end.

Introduction

It is incumbent on Christians to be salt and light in their generation. Sometimes this involves simple witnessing amongst friends, family, and acquaintances. Sometimes it calls upon us to put our head above the parapet – something few of us relish doing. In this instance we are being challenged to defend, in the first instance, God’s integrity reflected in the Sixth Commandment, but also the security of the most vulnerable in our society that are protected by the universally accepted sanctity of life principle.

The matter is sufficiently serious and literally life-threatening to seek a united face amongst the Christian community. Christians should consider the subject of euthanasia calmly, objectively, Biblically and free from over-emotive language. Euthanasia can be a broader subject with passive and active dimensions as well as various interpretations of ‘mercy killing’. Legalised euthanasia can be the catalyst to justify suicide for those who have low self-esteem or are severely depressed. It would be hugely detrimental to society.

Media reports and talkback radio programmes indicate that people are being won over to an acceptance of euthanasia. The battle is being won, not on principle, but by playing emotional blackmail with worst case scenarios depicting extreme pain and suffering as an unnecessary aspect of dying. It goes without saying that not one of us relishes the thought of loved ones suffering needlessly. Ideally we would wish a peaceful, pain-free deathbed for everyone. Is it right to set aside God’s Law depending on the degree of pain and suffering? If that is a legitimate interpretation of Scripture then wouldn’t God have been obliged to shorten Jesus’ time on the Cross?

Sanctity of life

Some people argue that Christians do not have the moral high ground where sanctity of life is concerned. The principle is universally accepted, to a greater or lesser degree, by other religions and by no religions at all. Nevertheless, we are convinced it is distinctly Judaeo-Christian in flavour. It even pre-dates the giving of the Ten Commandments. Genesis 9 makes clear that sanctity of life should characterise the post-Flood new world order.

It has also been historically accepted by the Christian church that some exceptions to the 6th Commandment have been sanctioned by God which do not conflict with the sanctity of life principle. Whatever we think of war and capital punishment we must accept that many Christians view these as having Biblical warrant to take human life – a necessary evil.

There is another ethical minefield for Christians in the areas of prolonging life by artificial means – for example the withdrawal of nutrition, or distinctions between being permanently brain-dead and indefinitely comatose. We recognise these dilemmas and pray we will never have to face them and profoundly sympathise with those that do. This is not the place to explore the merits and demerits of the complexities that arise in medical ethics. Nor should we consider the merits and demerits of euthanasia on the grounds of such complexities. Nothing less than solid Biblical grounds can warrant setting aside the sanctity of life principle.

Dignity

The attack on our Christian culture is being waged on many fronts. One weapon is the use of vocabulary. A favourite with the advocates of euthanasia is the word ‘dignity’. The phrase ‘dying with dignity’ has become the accepted mantra. But what is meant by ‘dignity’ in this context? As in all other ethical questions the Bible must define how we use language. The Bible teaches clearly that all humans are dignified creatures by our creation in God’s image. We have dignity whilst we have life. It doesn’t depend on ability, capability, or agility.

Even the death of our Saviour was not without dignity! It is only by viewing the Cross from an earthly perspective that we see the glorious Son of God undignified in His death. Despite the appalling circumstances, His crucifixion as a willing sacrifice and His love as the Saviour of the world, is surely the very epitome of dignity (Jn.15:13).

In the debate over euthanasia the meaning of dignity has been perverted. It is argued that should a person lose autonomy they have lost their dignity! If one can no longer use the bathroom unaided, or feed oneself, or dress oneself, their dignity is gone. This is not only untrue, it is also cruel. Loss of independence is not loss of dignity. There are lots of people that have little or no independence, from babies to the handicapped, or those recovering from a serious accident or illness. It is absurd to suggest that dignity depends on autonomy. It is outrageous to suggest that Stephen Hawking, the brilliant physicist who has long-since been confined to a wheelchair by motor neurone disease, has no dignity because he can’t go to the bathroom like the rest of us!

Physical Pain

Another area being exploited in this debate is pain. This is arguably a far more emotive issue. All of us hate the thought of pain in ourselves or in others. It is beyond question that one of the most distressing experiences in life is to watch someone you love suffering a painful terminal illness. Most Christians well understand the desire to hasten the end for suffering loved ones. But again we must temper our considerations, as well as our emotions, by the teaching of God’s Word and clear rational thinking. The Bible makes it very plain that pain, to some degree and in some sense, is all part of living and dying. As we manage pain in life and living so we must try to manage it in the process of dying.

Of course there are examples where medication and palliative care fail to free the patient of pain. It is also true that heavy medication of this nature can have undesirable side-effects. But most deathbeds do not involve excruciating pain. Palliative care has improved to such a degree in modern medicine that most pain can be reduced if not removed altogether. Whose pain does euthanasia relieve the most – the patient’s or their loved one’s suffering?

Psychological Pain

Physical pain is one thing; pain in the mind can be quite different. The problem here is, where do you draw the line? A person can be dying a physically pain-free death yet be in utter torment of mind. Fear of the unknown and the thought of death can be torturous for some people. Do they not qualify to be euthanised as well, particularly if they are old and infirm? Are they to be told: sorry, you have the wrong type of pain? Who decides on the nature of the pain?

But should this proposed legislation have provision for the termination of people in psychological pain, what is the logic of that position? What degree of pain qualifies? How is it to be measured? Is it only those that are also diagnosed as dying from a medical illness that will qualify? What about the person that has no defined illness but claims to be in such torment of mind that they no longer wish to live? Recently a woman in Europe who had lost her two sons in an accident claimed that she was in utter despair and could not continue in this life. There are clinics that agreed with her desire to be euthanised. Who would decide that she was suffering from the wrong type of pain for quick relief?

Old Age

Another related aspect is the inevitability of decreasing function in old age. There is a hill to climb in life and at some time we arrive at the summit and then begin our decline. During this descent we become less functional the older we get. We run less; we walk slower, we take up fewer challenges; we visit the doctor more often; hospital appointments become common place; our sight and hearing become less sharp; our appetites change; and we go to bed earlier. At some stage this decline will inevitably escalate. Health problems become more frequent and more serious. Our independence slowly decreases. Pain becomes routine. Incremental medication becomes necessary.

That is life. It has always been the same. In the Christian worldview such decline never detracts from dignity. Pain, to a greater or lesser degree, is inevitable in old age. Nor does the decline necessarily detract from quality of life. It is another perversion to suggest that an old man or an old woman sitting out their last days, quietly, peacefully, unable to interact anymore, has no quality of life. It is the essence of dignity and quality of life to live one’s last days in the quiet environment of a caring home with family, or nursing staff lovingly looking after your needs.

Conclusion

A euthanasia bill is an offence to God and threatens the most vulnerable in our society. Christians must stand firm and oppose this legislation by all possible means

- Euthanasia defies the global principle of the sanctity of life

- Transgressing the sanctity of life principle should have solid ethical grounding such as war or capital punishment

- Compassion alone does not provide sufficient grounds for legislating to take human life

- Human dignity should not be defined merely in terms of what a person can or cannot do

- Instances of extreme physical pain beyond modern medicine are very rare

- Modern palliative care is better than ever and has an excellent track record in reducing if not removing pain

- Instances in America and Europe demonstrate that safeguards in the legislation do not prevent abuse of the legislation

- Euthanasia will threaten the most vulnerable in our society

- The views of a small minority of the population are not a basis for the introduction of morally questionable legislation

- Euthanasia is suicide by another name

- If euthanasia becomes a human right (under this proposed legislation) why not suicide?

- Legislation means obligation. It would become incumbent on the medical authority to carry out euthanasia.

- Who decides which doctor should be involved in this? All, some, most? 

Rev. Iain Smith is the pastor of Hobart South Presbyterian Church in Tasmania, Australia. This article was previously printed in the Free Church Witness and is republished here with permission.