Garry will be starting a new series looking at topical issues (‘Talking Point’) next Sunday evening. There are all kinds of issues facing us today which may seem bewildering and confusing. Where do Christians stand on abortion and euthanasia – and why? What does the Bible have to say about gay marriage? What can God know about modern science?
The Bible is relevant to us today and can help us to think through difficult issues. Come along to find out more!
A very interesting radio programme on Radio 4 today touching on some of the issues raised by Garry’s sermon on euthanasia on Sunday. You can listen to the programme ‘Inside the Ethics Committee’ here (or via the Radio 4 website if the link doesn’t work.)
The road to hell, the proverb goes, is paved with good intentions. There are many who advocate euthanasia for the most humane of reasons. They want to alleviate pain and suffering; they want to show mercy and compassion to those suffering (whether the person involved or their families). Christians also want to alleviate pain and suffering, showing mercy and compassion, and would support every effort to help a person, often working tirelessly in professions that do this, without agreeing to taking life. They work in hospices (which have made great strides in easing the pain of terminally ill patients and in giving them the ‘dignified death’ they long for), hospitals and care homes, caring for the disabled and needy in many different situations. Christians also know there is nothing inherently wrong with withdrawing treatment which is not having any curative effect at a patient’s request and recognise that there is indeed a time to die (Eccl 3:2) which even modern medicine cannot prevent.
Nonetheless, the practice of active euthanasia opens a Pandora’s box of ethical issues which leave us disquieted and afraid. Ryan Anderson has written that ‘wherever physician-assisted suicide becomes legal, safeguards seeking to minimize the risk of people against their will have proved to be inadequate and have often been watered down or eliminated.’ Dr Jack Kevorkian has made a ‘suicide machine’ to end the lives of ill patients who request his assistance and argues that ‘rules’ are not needed to determine who should or should not die, concluding ‘I can keep this controlled while I’m alive, but after I die, you’ll get corruptible doctors running them [clinics which practise euthanasia.] But that doesn’t scare me; that should scare society. That’s society’s problem.’
Determining who should die and why leads us down a slippery slope from informed consent to murder by choice. Dr Kevorkian believes also in terminal experimentation for those facing imminent and inevitable death (without defining either of those terms) and concludes the Nazi medics did the right thing but in the wrong way (without concern over consent or anaesthesia). We all know where eugenics can lead: between 1939 and 1941, more than 70,000 intellectually and physically disabled people were exterminated, the opening act in the Nazis’ demonic assault on the sanctity of human life. All who say that euthanasia can be practised ‘safely’ and ‘with consent’ need to look back at history and learn from it.
In his new series ‘Talking Point!’, Garry hopes to stimulate discussion and talk from a Christian perspective about issues that are in the news today, equipping Christians to understand and explain the Biblical reasons for why we believe what we believe on certain issues. The first topic was euthanasia (from the Greek for ‘good death’), also known as assisted suicide or mercy killing. Euthanasia is defined as ‘taking a deliberate action with the express intention of ending a life to relieve intractable, persistent, unstoppable suffering’ and can involve voluntary euthanasia (in which the person who is suffering consents to their life being taken; this is legal in Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Switzerland the states of Oregon and Washington in the USA) and involuntary euthanasia (which is euthanasia conducted without the person’s consent, usually because the person is incapable of doing so himself.)
Euthanasia can also be described as either passive (when life-sustaining treatments are withheld, which may result in death but which can be argued is not intended to take life, rather simply allowing nature to take its course) or active (usually involving lethal substances or force – eg smothering with a pillow).
This is very much a topical issue – on 16th July 2015, the widow of an assisted suicide campaigner lost her legal battle against the UK Government for the right to die (Jane Nicklinson, whose husband, Tony, died of locked-in syndrome in 2012) and on 20th July 2015 the High Court dismissed a claim from a man with locked-in syndrome that doctors should be allowed to help him to die. In those countries where assisted suicide is legal, however, it is easy to see that what may begin with good intentions can easily continue into practices which most people find abhorrent: Carrie Dedrick in Belgium was prescribed the ‘treatment’ of death for her mental illness in 2013; in February 2014, Belgium’s parliament voted in favour of child euthanasia, allowing children who are terminally ill to request euthanasia.
Euthanasia is often seen as kindness towards those who are suffering. It is seen as a way of easing people’s pain – surely a laudable goal! Those in favour want to give people ‘a dignified death’. People want to have autonomy and control over how they die as much as how they live; they want to exercise ‘choice’ and ‘control.’ These aims seem praiseworthy and there is no doubt that those who suffer often do face great pain and there are difficult decisions to be made by families and patients. It is ironic that in surveys (usually of those who are healthy and not in pain!), over half are in favour of euthanasia. When pain is managed well (in hospices for the terminally ill, for example), however, and surveys are taken amongst those who are actually suffering, the percentage in favour of euthanasia is much lower (less than 1%.) Our will to live is strong in the majority of cases, even when observers might declare there is no ‘quality of life worth living.’ Nick Vujicic, a man born with tetra-amelia syndrome (born without arms and legs), could be described as having no ‘quality of life’, but his amazing personality shines through and defies this evaluation. Judging someone else’s quality of life is inevitably subjective.
Euthanasia is judged wrong by Christians because of the Biblical view of the sanctity of human life and the role of God as the author and preserver of life. Deut 32:39 and Job 1:21 remind us that the Lord is sovereign over life and death. Eccl 3:2 tells us there is a time to be born and a time to die, but life and death are not our ‘rights’, but God’s gifts to us. Ps 139:16 tells us that God saw our unformed bodies in our mother’s womb; all the days ordained for us were written in His book. Active euthanasia is effectively murder, which is forbidden by God (see Ex 20:13), since it is premeditated killing. The intention behind the killing may be merciful, but we are not equipped to make those judgments (people in comas have recovered, for example; those diagnosed with terminal illnesses have not died.) Euthanasia denies God the opportunity to work in a shattered life and bring glory to His name; it assumes the mantle of God in making life-or-death decisions which, as history shows us, cannot always be taken by those who are incorruptible. Heart-wrenching though many of the stories advocating euthanasia may be, we need to defend the rights of the defenceless (the disabled, the elderly, the very young who may have no voice but whose lives are precious in God’s sight) and uphold the value and worth of every human life, since we are all made in God’s image.