Critical Issues: Euthanasia
Rescue the Perishing, Care for the Dying
Every January Southern Baptists celebrate Sanctity of Human Life Sunday. The emphasis includes the issue of euthanasia. Euthanasia encompasses the topics of infanticide, suicide, mercy killing and doctor-assisted suicide.
No more relevant moral issue for Southern Baptists exists than that which deals with death and dying. We all face the illness and death of loved ones. We all face the prospect of pain and suffering in our deaths.
The Bible specifically and generally addresses how we as Christians are to face our own deaths and how we are to comfort and care for the dying.
After reviewing Scripture and various arguments, we will reach two basic conclusions. One is that our Christian duty toward the dying may be summarized by quoting lyrics from a Fanny Crosby hymn, “Rescue the perishing, care for the dying; Jesus is merciful, Jesus will save.”
The second conclusion is that we have a Christian duty to be a witness for Christ during our own dying process, which precludes actively taking our own lives or directing others to cause our deaths.
In the first section we will survey the present trends and practices in our society regarding euthanasia. Then we will examine the moral issues and arguments in light of biblical principles. Finally, we will present a Southern Baptist response based on the biblical mandate.
The Cultural Dilemma
There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way to death (Prov. 14:12).
Over the past decades, the “right to die” or the “death with dignity” movement has gathered the momentum of a tidal wave and has slammed full force into the moorings of our legal system, moral values and public policy.
Euthanasia is a leading ethical, medical and legal topic in the United States and is an important moral issue of the 1990s and 2000s.
It is time for all Southern Baptists to take a quick “damage assessment” and then get to work cleaning up the moral confusion created by the euthanasia movement. Consider the following:
Dr. Jack Kevorkian, “Doctor Death” as he was often called in the press, continued to make headlines on September 9, 1993, for assisting in the death of his eighteenth victim, a 73-year-old bone caner patient. At the time, Kevorkian was facing criminal charges for his role in the death of a 30-year-old man who had been diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease. Dr. Kevorkian has been quoted on the issue of doctor-assisted suicide:
“It’s unstoppable. It may not happen in my lifetime, but my opponents are going to lose.”
Derek Humphry, founder of the Hemlock Society, an organization to promote legislation supporting mercy killing, made the 1991 New York Times best-seller list with his book Final Exit. The book advocates suicide for the terminally ill and provides numerous methods for committing suicide.
In the Journal of the American Medical Association an anonymous gynecology intern reports that while making night rounds he met a 20-year-old woman named Debbie who was suffering from ovarian cancer. The intern reports giving her a lethal injection of morphine. No permission or consent was sought. To date, no action has been taken against the doctor.
In the New England Journal of Medicine Dr. Timothy Quill relates how he instructed his long-time patient Diane, who suffered from acute leukemia, on taking enough barbiturates to kill herself. She did.
In the early 1980s the well-known cases of “Baby Doe” (the Bloomington, Ind. Down’s Syndrome baby with a correctable deformity who was allowed to die by starvation) and “Baby Jane Doe” (the baby allowed to die without treatment of her infections) made known what many in the pediatrics community already knew-it is a common practice to allow mentally or severely physically defective newborns to die in hospital neonatal care units.
In the courts, family members, doctors and hospital administrators are increasingly petitioning for permission to withhold food and water from permanently unconscious patients.
Several states, such as California with Initiative 161 (the California Death with Dignity Act), and Washington, with Initiative 119 (the Washington Aid in Dying Act) have put to a vote whether to approve doctor-assisted suicide and active euthanasia. Both failed. Efforts in other states are pending.
In 1990, Congress passed the Patient Self-Determination Act, making it mandatory for all federally assisted health-care providers to ask prospective patients about a living will.
The so-called health-care crisis is forcing health-care providers and insurance companies to reduce costs. One way to reduce costs is to limit care for the terminally ill and elderly. Further, the AIDS epidemic is fueling speculation that the number of terminally ill AIDS patients draining resources and money from the health-care system will force the country to adopt active euthanasia out of economic necessity.
In order for Southern Baptists to successfully confront the euthanasia movement and the eroding respect for the sanctity of human life, we must first examine the arguments for active euthanasia and compare those arguments to the principles taught in the Bible.
The Moral Problem
What mattered is whether he struck the rock living or dead! Feeling would soon be over. Hawkeye from The Last of the Mohicans.
Euthanasia comes from the Greek language and literally means “a good death.” However, today the term “euthanasia” has been used in so many contexts that it is important to define it.
Southern Baptists are on record as opposing “active euthanasia.” Active euthanasia is generally defined as an action by a person which causes the death of another person who is suffering from a terminal and imminently fatal condition.
Hawkeye committed active euthanasia in the passage quoted above from The Last of the Mohicans. An Indian wounded by Hawkeye is dangling high in an oak tree on the edge of a cliff, with rocks and the river below. It is obvious that the Indian will lose his grip and plunge to a rocky and gruesome death. Duncan pleads with Hawkeye to finish him off. Hawkeye fires the fatal shot just as the Indian is falling.
A typical medical example of active euthanasia is when a doctor gives a dying patient a lethal injection to relieve pain and suffering.
Notice two points about active euthanasia. First, the action is one that directly kills the patient. The cause of death is the intervening action, not the underlying disease or illness.
Southern Baptists oppose active euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide because they are direct, intentional acts of killing.
Conversely, when an imminently dying patient refuses additional medical treatment which will not significantly extend life, or when medical procedures or treatments keeping a patient alive are withdrawn and as a consequence of that action, the patient dies from his or her present medical ailments, the action is sometimes called “passive euthanasia.”
The case of Karen Ann Quinlan is an example of passive euthanasia. The Quinlan family asked the court for permission to withdraw an artificial respiratory device from Karen. Everyone believed that Karen would die immediately, but she lived nearly ten more years.
Southern Baptists generally do not oppose passive euthanasia because we distinguish intentional killing from allowing one to die.
Most Christians believe it is morally and biblically acceptable for patients to refuse or withdraw medical treatment when death is imminent and do not categorize such practice as euthanasia or “mercy killing.”
However, Southern Baptists are on record as opposing the withdrawal of food and water (hydration) because when food and water are withdrawn, the patient dies from starvation and/or dehydration. The withdrawal of food and water becomes the cause of death, and thus, is an act of active euthanasia.
In the case of Nancy Cruzan, decided by the United States Supreme Court, the parents requested permission to remove Nancy’s feeding tube. She was permanently unconscious, but on no artificial life support. The removal of the feeding tube would cause Nancy to die from starvation. After a lengthy court battle, the tube was finally removed and she died.
The second point about active euthanasia is the fact that the patient has a terminal condition which is imminently fatal. If a patient is diagnosed today with terminal cancer, he or she may still have six months to six years of expected life. For a doctor to administer a lethal injection today in anticipation of a deteriorating condition or increased pain and suffering in the future is morally and legally an act of murder.
The euthanasia movement advocates suicide or killing persons who are not on the brink of death, but simply have a declining “quality of life.” The “quality of life” ethic grants a decision-maker the right to determine the value of another’s life and to kill individuals whose lives do not have enough “value.”
The “quality of life” ethic is displayed in the last scene of Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. Chief Bromden, the narrator, describes his growing realization that Big Nurse and the psychiatric staff have lobotomized his friend McMurphy as punishment for McMurphy’s insubordination. He knows McMurphy wouldn’t have wanted the institution to get the better of him and live a lobotomized life for “twenty or thirty years,” so on the night Chief Bromden escapes from the mental hospital he first smothers McMurphy with a pillow.
The same “quality of life” ethic is further illustrated in George Orwell’s novel Animal Farm. Boxer, the slow-witted but hard-working carthorse, gives his every fiber of strength and energy to the animal farm. As he exerts himself over the years he grows weaker. He marks off the days to his promised retirement. However, as retirement approaches, Napoleon and Squealer, the dictator pigs, realize that Boxer’s value to the farm has lessened and that his upkeep will be expensive. The Solution is to send him to the slaughterhouse under the guise of a trip to the veterinarian hospital.
A part of the euthanasia movement’s philosophy is a “quality of life” ethic which may be used to justify killing the old, the weak, the mentally handicapped and the unwanted.
Those who advocate active euthanasia do so on several grounds. First, death is natural and inevitable, and pain and suffering serve no purpose. Mercy and compassion dictate that a patient be given or be allowed to take a lethal dose to relieve the suffering. Second, a patient has a right to die and to choose for himself whether to continue living or not. Third, the costs are disproportionate to the benefit for the patient, and society cannot bear the costs.
Euthanasia advocates stress that mercy and compassion dictate the need to relieve pain and suffering. Sometimes they even cite the passage “Blessed are the merciful” (Matt. 5:7 HCSB).
The Bible does command Christians to be merciful, but nowhere in the Old or New Testament does “merciful” mean taking the life of another. Mercy typically means sparing one from death or punishment.
The euthanasia activists are also quick to cite real-life, heart-tugging examples of needless human suffering in an effort to frighten or scare us away from facing death.
The scare tactic was employed in John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress. In one scene, Giant Despair captured Christian and Hopeful and threw them into a dark dungeon. After beating the two severely, Giant despair encouraged Christian and Hopeful to give up and commit suicide by telling them their situation was hopeless. When Giant Despair’s words produced no results, he then showed the pair the mangled bones and skulls of other victims exposed in the graveyard. Christian again resisted the temptation to take his own life and eventually escaped.
The notion that an individual has “a right to die” is incompatible with the Christian belief that we are under God’s authority. “Do you not know that your body is a sanctuary of the Holy Spirit who is in you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought at a price; therefore glorify God in your body” (1 Cor. 6:19-20 HCSB).
Finally, cost is not a valid consideration for Christians to consider when evaluating life or death. The Good Samaritan paid his own money to tend to the needs of a desperate and dying stranger (Lk. 10:35).
A View from Scripture
The use of the Bible in ethical and public policy debates
As Southern Baptists we believe that Holy Scripture is authoritative for our lives and that meditation upon the Word of God, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit will reveal God’s will for our moral choices.
In fact, the Baptist Faith and Message, article 1, clearly states the principle that the Bible is our authoritative guide on moral issues: “The Holy Bible was written by men divinely inspired and is the record of God’s revelation of Himself to man. It is a perfect treasure of divine instruction. It has God for its author, salvation for its end, and truth, without any mixture of error for its matter. It reveals the principles by which God judges us; and therefore is, and will remain to the end of the world, the true center of Christian union, and the supreme standard by which all human conduct, creeds, and religious opinions should be tried. The criterion by which the Bible is to be interpreted is Jesus Christ.”
In today’s secular society Christians are often intimidated by their opponents for relying on biblical or religious grounds for their positions on social issues such as abortion and euthanasia. In The Naked Public Square, author Richard John Neuhaus successfully refutes the notion that religiously based values should be excluded from public policy.
Jesus Christ commands His followers to be the salt of the earth, the foundation and preservers of society, not a garnish decoration. Article 15 of the Baptist Faith and Message says that Baptists are to work for the will of Christ in human society and to provide for the needy and sick.
Traditional biblical arguments against active euthanasia
1. The sanctity of human life
“What is man that You remember him, the son of man that You look after him” (Ps. 8:4)?
The Christian doctrine of the sanctity of human life changed Western culture and is the chasm that separates the ethical principles of Christianity from all other religions and philosophies.
Historically, Christians from the early church fathers and St. Augustine to twentieth-century theologians Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer have opposed abortion, infanticide, suicide and the direct killing of the dying, based upon the doctrine of the sanctity of human life.
The doctrine of the sanctity of human life comes from two biblical principles:
(1) Human beings are created in the image of God (the imago Dei) (Gen. 1:26-27; 5:1; 9:6; 1 Cor. 11:7; 2 Cor. 3:18; Col. 3:10; Eph. 4:24; Jas. 3:9), and; (2) the Sixth Commandment against murder and other similar passages:
“Do not murder” (Ex. 20:13; Deut. 5:17 HCSB).
“Do not kill the innocent and the just…” (Ex. 23:7 HCSB).
“Whoever strikes a person so that he dies must be put to death… If a person willfully acts against his neighbor to murder him by scheming, you must take him from My altar to be put to death.” (Ex. 21:12-14 HCSB).
“Six things the LORD hates…hands that shed innocent blood…” (Pro. 6:16-17 HCSB).
An exact definition of the image of God in humankind is a much-debated and complex issue. We do know that all persons, including the aged, the dying, the mentally and physically handicapped are “crowned with glory and majesty” (Ps. 8:3-6).
We also know that the image of God includes a physical, moral and spiritual dimension. For example, Southern Baptist theologian E.Y. Mullins wrote that the image of God includes our rational nature, conscience, emotional nature, will, self-determination, original sinlessness, dominion over nature and immortality.
Some euthanasia advocates reduce the concept of the image of God into the secular notion of personhood. The personhood concept is usually defined in terms of physical and mental abilities or capabilities and, thus, excludes human beings lacking those defined qualities. “Personhood analysis” ignores the full scriptural view of humankind.
2. The Christian’s duty to care for the dying
Several biblical passages instruct us to care for the needy and helpless. The office of deacon in Acts 6 was created specifically to serve and feed the widows in the church.
In Matthew 25:31-46 we learn that we must demonstrate our compassion and mercy: “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you took care of Me; I was in prison and you visited Me” (Matthew 25:34-36 HCSB).
Job was a perfect example for us: “For I rescued the poor man who cried out for help, and the fatherless child who had no one to support him. The dying man blessed me, and I made the widow’s heart rejoice” (Job 29:12-13 HCSB).
In the final scene of Shakespeare’s tragedy Julius Caesar, Brutus is defeated and intends to kill himself. He pleads for his longtime friend Volumnius to hold a sword while Brutus runs through it. Volumnius refuses and replies, “That’s not an office for a friend, my lord.”
Actively taking the life of a loved one is not the office of a Christian.
3. The Christian view of suffering and death
Jesus provides us with the proper Christian attitude toward suffering in the account of the Garden of Gethsemane, “Father, if You are willing, take this cup away from Me—nevertheless, not My will, but Yours, be done” (Lk. 22:42 HCSB). Luke reports that Jesus was so anguished by His imminent suffering and death that “His sweat became like drops of blood falling to the ground” (Lk. 22:44 HCSB).
Christians understand that suffering may have a spiritual purpose or value. We are not to seek suffering and are to avoid suffering when possible, but in the end we have a mission to proclaim Christ, and that is sometimes accomplished through our suffering.
Death is not to be feared by Christians. The apostle Paul said, “For me, living is Christ and dying is gain” (Phil. 1:21 HCSB).
Have you considered my servant Job?
The Old Testament Book of Job provides a clear model for Christians examining the issues of pain, suffering, death and active euthanasia.
Job was a wealthy man, a man of political power and social prominence. He was an old man (32:6), with a wife and ten grown children of whom God said, “…a man of perfect integrity, who fears God and turns away from evil” (1:8 HCSB).
Job lost it all. On one day he lost his wealth, social and political status and servants. All ten children were killed when a house collapsed.
A short time later, Job was stricken with a painful disease. Scholars have been interested in identifying this disease and have carefully cataloged the symptoms: “anorexia, emaciation, fever, fits of depression, weeping, sleeplessness, nightmares, putrid breath, failing vision, rotting teeth and haggard looks.”
Job believed himself to be on the verge of death and wished for his immediate demise. He may have contemplated suicide. His wife could not stand his misery any longer and begged him to curse God and ensure his immediate death.
Further, by the euthanasia advocates’ standards, Job had lost all dignity. He lived in the city dump. His body was covered with boils. He became a laughingstock to his enemies and was avoided by some of his friends.
Job’s misery, suffering and loss of “dignity” made him a prime candidate for a visit by Dr. Kevorkian.
However, notice that none of Job’s four closest friends ever entertained the notion that someone should ease his pain and suffering by active euthanasia. Job never concluded that his life was not worth living.
Job used the circumstances of his immense pain and suffering to contemplate the meaning of life and death and his relation to God.
A Southern Baptist Response to Active Euthanasia
Southern Baptists have no “official” position on any matter because no one individual, association, board, commission or agency has authority to speak for the Southern Baptist denomination.
However, Southern Baptists as a group express their views on moral issues such as active euthanasia through the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist convention. The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission is governed by trustees elected by the Southern Baptist Convention. The trustees give policy and direction to the Commission staff and oversee the positions expressed in the Commission’s literature.
The trustees expressed their view on euthanasia in the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission Annual Minutes, September 16, 1987, as follows: “Efforts shall be undertaken by the Christian Life Commission staff to oppose infanticide and active euthanasia, including efforts to discourage any designation of food and/or water as “extraordinary” medical care for some patients.”
Southern Baptists also have expressed their positions on active euthanasia by resolutions passed at annual Conventions.
At the San Antonio, Texas, 1988 Convention, the messengers resolved that, “human life, from fertilization until natural death, is sacred and should be protected, not destroyed.”
At the same Convention the messengers also resolved: “We recognize the validity of living wills and organ donor cards, along with the right of the nest of kin to make decisions regarding organ donations; and…that nothing in the resolution be construed to condone euthanasia, infanticide, abortion, or harvesting of fetal tissue for the procurement of organs.”
At the Indianapolis, Indiana, 1992 Convention the messengers passed the following resolution on euthanasia and assisted suicide:
WHEREAS, The Bible teaches that God created all human life in His own image and declares human life to be sacred from conception until death; and
WHEREAS, Southern Baptists have historically affirmed biblical teaching regarding the sanctity of human life; and
WHEREAS, A growing “quality of life” ethic has led to increasing acceptance of euthanasia and assisted suicide in the United States.
THEREFORE, Be it RESOLVED, That we the messengers to the Southern Baptist Convention, meeting in Indianapolis, Indiana, June 9-11, 1992, affirm the biblical prohibition against the taking of innocent human life by another person, or oneself, through euthanasia or assisted suicide; and
Be it further RESOLVED, That in light of the fact that the end of life may be painful, we urge scientists and physicians to continue their research into more effective pain management; and
Be it further RESOLVED, That we encourage hospitals, nursing care facilities, and hospices to increase their efforts to keep dying persons as comfortable as possible and call on Christians to help provide companionship and appropriate physical and spiritual ministry to persons who are dying, and
Be it further RESOLVED, That we oppose efforts to designate food and water as “extraordinary treatment,” and urge that nutrition and hydration continue to be viewed as compassionate and ordinary medical care and humane treatment; and
Be it further RESOLVED, That we reject as appropriate any action which, of itself or by intention, causes a person’s death; and
Be it finally RESOLVED, That we call upon federal, state, and local governments to prosecute under the law physicians or others who practice euthanasia or assist patients to commit suicide.
All of us will one day face the reality of death and dying. As our pain and suffering increase, it will be a natural Christian response to say, “On Jordan’s stormy banks I stand, and cast a wishful eye to Canaan’s fair and happy land, where my possessions lie.” But let us remember as we stand on the river bank, it is not our Christian prerogative to either jump in or push our loved ones.