Combating a culture of death

February 4, 2015

As the Death-With-Dignity movement picks up political steam, the church cannot afford to sit idly by with so much at stake. Evangelicals who wrestle with this issue, particularly since the physician-assisted suicide of Brittany Maynard in November, say Christians must stand as passionately on behalf of the terminally ill as they have for the unborn. Otherwise, human life will be further devalued, and European-style approaches to end-of-life issues could become commonplace in the U.S., including the practice of non-consensual euthanasia.

That’s the bold conclusion of Russell D. Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious

Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention; C. Ben Mitchell, a biomedical ethicist who holds the Graves chair of moral philosophy at Union University; Joni Eareckson Tada, a longtime advocate for the disabled since becoming a quadriplegic 47 years ago; and Kara Tippetts, a 38-year-old mother of four suffering from terminal breast cancer.

These leaders spoke with Decision after Maynard’s Nov. 1 passing. They voiced deep concern that America is fostering a culture of death, rather than of life.

As her seizures from terminal brain cancer increased in frequency and intensity, Maynard took matters into her own hands. Surrounded in her Oregon home by family and close friends—one of whom is a physician—she swallowed a death-inducing medication three weeks before her 30th birthday. Oregon had become the first state to legalize doctor-assisted suicide, in 2008. Montana, Washington, Vermont and New Mexico have since followed suit.

Twelve days after Maynard’s death, the New Jersey state General Assembly passed an “Aid-in-Dying” bill, invoking Maynard’s name during the debate. But even if the state Senate passes the legislation, it faces an uncertain future as Gov. Chris Christie has spoken out against the bill.

Regardless, the movement is gaining traction, fueled largely by the public profile of Maynard, whose campaign was undergirded by the organization Compassion & Choices. Its president, Barbara Coombs Lee, characterized the 41-to-31 vote by New Jersey’s General Assembly as “our first victory in the memory and spirit of Brittany Maynard.”

That’s alarming to Mitchell. He says the church must now act decisively.

“We’re going to see more states adopt pro-assisted suicide legislation until the church wakes up on this issue as it’s been awakened on the abortion issue,” Mitchell explained. “Until we see our belief in the sanctity of human life covering both edges of life—the beginning and the end—I don’t think the situation is going to get better.”

Moore voiced a similar sentiment. “We need a theologically informed, Gospel-robust movement that is pro-life and whole human person from conception to natural death.”

Moore acknowledged that Maynard drew a supportive response because she presented her suffering and decision to take her life in understand- able and sympathetic terms.

That’s in direct contrast to Dr. Jack Kevorkian, the Michigan pathologist who championed physician-assisted suicides during the 1990s. Kevorkian died in 2011 at the age of 83, after claiming he had helped some 130 people end their lives.

“Jack Kevorkian was a creepy figure who sort of fit into the mad scientist tropes of popular culture,” Moore said. “Brittany Maynard, on the other hand, was a much more sympathetic figure. And that’s more dangerous at the level of persuasion.”

As a result of an increasingly sophisticated right-to-die movement message, combined with a cultural mood in America that is be- coming morally libertarian on these issues, Moore said he dreads the prospect of an increased number of physician-assisted suicides like that of Maynard’s.

Tada was saddened by the news of Maynard’s death, especially not

Knowing if she had committed her life to Jesus Christ.

“Nobody enjoys watching someone else suffer,” said Tada, who became a quadriplegic after a diving accident at age 17. “No doubt Brittany was going through a number of struggles with her brain cancer. And I can appreciate Brittany’s mother’s grief, and the grief that her husband no doubt feels.”

Tada, who has lived with chronic pain and faced cancer herself, doesn’t necessarily find fault with Maynard or her family, but rather with well-organized and well-financed Death with Dignity advocates such as Compas-sions & Choices.

“They drove the media attention,” Tada said. “They use people like Brittany Maynard as poster children for their cause. Brittany and her family were persuaded by a strong right-to- die group to not only seek physician- assisted suicide but to go public.

“The church should take a stand against the organizations that are exploiting young people with terminal illnesses who don’t want to face suffering,” Tada added. “They’re working hard to make this a federal right across the board.”

This explosive issue must be approached from a biblical perspective, Mitchell said. “Taking one’s life is not a right,” he noted. “To prematurely end one’s life usurps a prerogative that belongs to God alone. We are not the authors of our lives, and we ought not be the finishers of our lives.”

Mitchell pointed to Job 1:21-22 as one scriptural injunction against the justification of assisted suicide: “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked shall I return there. The Lord gave, and the Lord has taken away; Blessed be the name of the Lord” (NIV).

Tada adds Romans 14:7 to the discussion: “For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone” (NIV).

She explained that there used to be in America a moral consensus that human beings were made in the image of God. She laments that’s no longer the case.

“When federal safeguards are more protective of an egg of a bald eagle than a fertilized egg of a pregnant woman, you know our society no longer believes we’re image bearers of God,” Tada said. “When you set man up as the center of his own universe, his command over his own rights be- comes pre-eminent. He’s the one who dictates his own fate.”

True rights are moral claims that are based in God’s law, Tada added. “But if you take God out of the picture, rights become nothing more than people’s willful determinations.”

It’s that line of reasoning Kara Tippetts finds disconcerting, the ramifications of which are staggering, especially within the medical community.

Jason and Kara Tippetts moved from North Carolina to Colorado Springs, Colo., to plant a church in the west end of town. In 2012, Kara discovered a lump and was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. Despite surgery, radiation and chemotherapy, it has metastasized throughout her body. Kara’s cancer is now classified as stage IV. She’s undergoing another round of chemo to try to slow down the growth rate in her spine and hips.

When Kara first heard about Brittany Maynard’s plight, she had a long talk with her own oncologist about the potential implications for him.

“He grew teary-eyed and said, ‘If I’m legislated to prescribe death, how will my patients trust me, and how will they know I am committed to their living and not their dying?’”

Kara told her oncologist she had been invited to write, via a guest blog, an open letter to Brittany Maynard. He urged her on (see sidebar on page 15). Not only did she present the claims of Jesus Christ, she expressed her concerns that Maynard’s doctor was walking away from the Hippocratic oath, which says, “First, do no harm.”

Talking with Decision prior to receiving a chemo treatment, Kara voiced a gnawing apprehension: “The Hippocratic oath has been in place for more than 2,000 years, so it’s arrogant of us to think we now know better.

If we legislate death, the brokenness that will come in our relationship with our doctors will be staggering, and we’ll face a depravity in our culture that we’re not ready for.”

Kara’s spirit lifted when she shared the reaction expressed in a particular letter she received following her guest blog post. It was from a physician. “He said he had never considered my perspective that suffering and dying can be made beautiful and that as a society it’s best that we care for the broken,” she explained. “He said he was going to walk away from assisting people in suicide and hastening their death, and instead start walking with people in their suffering. Jason and I rejoiced.”

Unless similar action is taken by others—and soon—America could go the way of Europe. The right to die could morph into the duty to die. And the acceptance and practice of non-consensual euthanasia, as done in such countries as Belgium and The Netherlands, could become the norm in the U.S.

During one of his recent Breakpoint broadcasts, commentator John Stonestreet painted a dismal picture: “What started in Europe as a movement to allow the terminally ill to end their suffering has evolved into the practice of eliminating lives deemed not worth living. Dr. Peter Saunders of the Care Not Killing Alliance says ‘In the Netherlands … dementia patients are euthanized, mobile euthanasia clinics operate and the Groningen protocol allows euthanasia for disabled babies. In Belgium, organs are harvested from euthanasia patients and 32 percent of all euthanasia deaths are without consent.’”

Not only are people’s lives at stake, Mitchell said, but the medical com- munity’s reputation is at stake. “When healers become accomplices in killing, the trust of patients plummets,” he said. “Elderly patients will be afraid to go to their doctors or into the hospital for fear that if their life isn’t judged to be worthy of living, it will be prematurely ended by a medical community that doesn’t see that as being particularly problematic.”

That kind of power can easily be abused, Tada said. “In our broken health care system, which is so cost-containment driven, the elderly, the disabled and people with terminal illnesses or chronic conditions will feel threatened.”

The church should not wait until someone encounters a crisis to teach them about suffering, Moore noted. “We ought to be preparing people from childhood what it means to suffer rightly before God and entrust themselves to God.”

Tada, who also tried to reach out to Brittany Maynard via an open letter, said today’s secular society doesn’t know how to handle suffering. “They want to drug it, or medicate it, or surgically get rid of it, or divorce it or institutionalize it,” she said. “No, God calls us to live with it.”

“We need not fear suffering,” she added. “We’re not better off dead than disabled. We can follow in the steps of Christ who set us an example as He took up His own cross. God will give us the strength and grace to bear up under the most difficult and painful of hardships—till our last breath when He calls us home.”

This piece was originally published by Decision Magazine.

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24