For centuries, physicians have adhered to the sentiment as described by the Hippocratic Oath. One of the clauses included in the historic commitment is this: “I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody who asked for it, nor will I make a suggestion to this effect.” Those who subscribe to the oath promise to refrain from participating in two actions now known as euthanasia and physician assisted suicide.
Euthanasia is the intentional act of taking a human life for the purpose of relieving pain and suffering. This can occur actively or passively. Active euthanasia involves an intentional act on the part of the physician toward a patient that causes death. Passive euthanasia involves withholding treatment with the intent to cause death. Physician assisted suicide, “PAS”, is a type of voluntary euthanasia in which a doctor either intentionally provides information to a patient about how to commit suicide, or prescribes the means that allow the patient to commit suicide.
There are three primary arguments in favor of euthanasia and PAS: autonomy, minimizing pain and suffering, and the idea that there is no morally relevant difference between taking steps to hasten death and allowing the dying process to occur. Even though a physician intentionally ending the life of a patient was considered unthinkable for centuries, western sentiment seems to be changing. In fact, both euthanasia and PAS are sometimes referred to as “death with dignity.” But the Bible teaches that euthanasia and PAS are actually enemies of dignity. Let’s consider what the Bible might have to say about these arguments.
Those who advocate euthanasia and PAS do so for largely understandable reasons. They wish to take away the suffering of terminally ill individuals, and they may even claim that there is a moral obligation to do so. In fact, in Canada, if a physician refuses to participate in euthanasia or PAS, he is legally required to refer patients to a physician who will. But the Bible teaches that suffering is not necessarily something that should be avoided at all costs. Romans 5:3 teaches us to “rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance.” Similarly, James teaches this: “Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing” (James 1:2-4).
For most people, including Christians, rejoicing in our sufferings is not easy. A dying person screaming in pain or weeping in loneliness in a hospital bed does not want to be told to be joyful in his suffering; and indeed, he generally shouldn’t be. But Christian ethicist Gilbert Meilaender said, “We should maximize care rather than minimizing suffering, which might include eliminating the sufferer.” Likewise, the authors of Always to Care, Never to Kill in the journal First Things concluded, “Although it may sometimes appear to be an act of compassion, killing is never a means of caring.” Inspired by Meilaender and the authors of Always to Care, Never to Kill, Stephen Phillips, an Indiana professor and physician once thoughtfully suggested that sometimes, true care is holding someone’s hand and suffering right alongside him. It is not taking his life or suggesting that he take his own.
Freedom of choice
Others in favor of euthanasia and PAS cite personal autonomy and freedom of choice. Everyone, they argue, has a right to die when and how they choose, and in fact, human dignity includes this. But consider the words of Job: “A person’s days are determined; you have decreed the number of his months and have set limits he cannot exceed” (Job 14:5). Euthanasia and PAS “assert a desire to be infinite” and reject a dependence on God, the author of life and controller of death.
Withholding treatment: A morally relevant distinction
Advocates would insist that there is no relevant difference between euthanasia or PAS and withholding life-saving treatment from a dying individual. They claim that since withholding medical treatment can be permissible, euthanasia or PAS must also be permissible, because the end result, the death of a person, is the same in either situation. Therefore, there must be no difference between any of these actions. This, however, is simply not the case.
Allowing to die involves withholding treatment without an intent to cause death. This is a form of beneficence, or preventing harm to a person. Examples might include removing a ventilator from a grandmother with no hope of recovery, or choosing to refrain from potentially fruitless chemotherapy. The authors of Always to Care, Never to Kill explain it like this: “It is permitted to refuse or withhold medical treatment in accepting death while we continue to care for the dying. It is never permitted . . . to take any action that is aimed at the death of ourselves or others.”
God commands, “You must not murder” (Ex. 20:13). Jesus also commands us, “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Allowing someone to die by withholding treatment may combine these two sentiments, because the intention is to care for a person in the best way possible, rather than to cause death. The morally relevant distinction between euthanasia or PAS and allowing someone to die involves intention and benevolent care.
Enemies of dignity
“So God created human beings in his own image. In the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27). Human beings are created in the Imago Dei—the Image of God. This alone gives us inherent dignity and a value to our lives. At some point, determining that our lives are not worth living fundamentally rejects this dignity.
Euthanasia has been legal in Belgium since 2002. Thousands of individuals in this country alone are euthanized each year. Countries like Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, and others are perfect examples of how opening the door to voluntary euthanasia leads directly to the practice of non-voluntary euthanasia, which is the killing of sick individuals who are incapable of consent, and even involuntary euthanasia, which is the killing of sick individuals against their will. These practices, although abhorrent, become normalized when a society deems certain lives not worth living.
Euthanasia and PAS reject the inherent dignity that God has given human beings. Participants seek to eliminate suffering, but they instead eliminate the objective value of life. Although the Bible does not speak to either euthanasia or PAS directly, Christian thought demands a critical and biblically-based approach to the subject. The value of human life in all its forms and at all stages is the central theme of the gospel, for it is the very purpose of Christ’s birth, death, and resurrection. To fail to respect human life at any point mocks the very essence of Christ’s mission to humanity.