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Euthanasia and The Economist

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If the saying is true that America tends to follow the cultural trends of Western Europe, then one heated matter we must look out for in the coming years is an elevated effort to decriminalize euthanasia and assisted suicide. Euthanasia, often defined as the intentionally ending of a life for purposes of relieving pain and suffering, was decriminalized in the Netherlands and Belgium in 2002, with Luxembourg following suit in 2009. Added to this is the lawfulness of assisted suicide in five other countries, as well as the U.S. states of Washington, Oregon, Vermont, New Mexico, and Montana.

Advocates of decriminalizing euthanasia and assisted suicide appear to be growing. Britain’s House of Lords recently engaged in a 10-hour debate over whether or not to give physicians the ability to prescribe a lethal dose of certain medications to patients deemed to have less than six months to live. Reporting on this drive for decriminalization in the U.K., a recent issue of The Economist[1], ran a story entitled “Easeful Death” with the byline: “Most people in the Western world favour assisted suicide. The law should reflect their will.” Writing in favor of assisted suicide’s decriminalization, the journalist presents the case of a British man with an incurable condition that results in his inability to move or talk. “Imprisoned in his corporeal cell,” attests the author, “with no chance of escape, he wanted to die. But since Britain does not permit assisted suicide, his “living nightmare” continued.” The correspondent maintains, “In a pluralistic society, the views of one religion should not be imposed on everybody. Those with a genuine moral objection to assisted suicide need not participate.”

Two popular strategies to support euthanasia are employed here by the author. The first is an appeal to emotion and the second is one that we have seen before in the gay marriage debate. It is a commonly employed strategy by those seeing no legitimate space for religious arguments and mores in the public sphere. It parallels the reasoning used by those in the same-sex marriage debate to say, “If you don’t like gay marriage, don’t get one.” While we must certainly affirm that we live in pluralistic societies and there is the need for religious plurality and non-discrimination based upon religious preference (or lack thereof), the problem with the rationale that says, “If you don’t like euthanasia, don’t get one” is not as simple as its champions would like to make it appear.

As the article in The Economist article aptly demonstrates, advocates of euthanasia most often appeal to emotion in order to further sell their arguments. Appeals are made on behalf of those supposedly with incurable maladies in excruciating pain with little time left before their body succumbs totally to the disease. To be sure, not all of this concern is ill-placed. A healthy concern for those in suffering and pain is right, and we ought to applaud the sympathy that many advocates of euthanasia have for their fellow man. It must be stated that anyone with an ounce of compassion sympathizes with those who have to endure incessant suffering and pain. Certainly their best interest is what is driving this discussion and is a necessary consideration. However, all too often the primary focus is placed on the supposedly compelling case for assisted suicide without great thought given to the societal consequences of legalization.

It is in the best interest of the government and society at large to uphold the criminalization of euthanasia and assisted suicide, for, if they were decriminalized, the cost to society would be quite high. There are bound to be victims if euthanasia and assisted suicide is endorsed by the state. Vulnerable people—the sick, elderly, and distraught—would be more apt to see assisted suicide as a viable way out for them. John Arras, a current member of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues has insisted that

The victims of legalization…will include the clinically depressed eighty-year-old man who could have lived for another year of quality if only he had been adequately treated, and the fifty-year-old woman who asks for death because doctors in her financially stretched HMO cannot, or will not, effectively treat her unrelenting, but mysterious pelvic pain.[2]

Arras correctly surmises the cost to society were euthanasia to gain wide societal acceptance and state approval.

This still invites the question of how a follower of Christ ought to respond to calls for euthanasia’s legalization. Here are four ways:

We must first respond with compassion. We recognize that there is great pain and suffering all around us in this world. We must not callously or flippantly dismiss the heavy emotions and tragic situations that often drive the conversation. Christ was moved with compassion when he encountered the sick and vulnerable (Matt 14:14), and we must respond similarly.

In all this, we must not lose sight of the principle that a merciful motive will never justify an objectively immoral act. The promotion of evil for a supposed good is never a justifiable moral argument (Rom 3:5-8).

We must resist calls to make any form of euthanasia legal. From a Christian perspective, if we are to remain faithful to Scripture’s teaching on the invaluable worth of every man and woman created in the imago Dei, regardless of his or her utility to society, we must squarely reject euthanasia. A view of mankind’s dignity and the value of human life that stems from the belief that all persons are created in the image of their Creator must underpin any discussion because regularly the central arguments favoring euthanasia are emotive—sympathies are aroused by an appeal to suffering and pain. I am not suggesting that suffering and pain should not be alleviated when ethically possible, but pain is not the ultimate tragedy and freedom from suffering is not the paramount to be achieved.

A failure to grasp the implications of humanity’s intrinsic worth plagues arguments for the legalization of voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. The moment human life is untethered from its inherent sanctity then the result is a rationale that makes euthanasia, assisted suicide, abortion, and other ills acceptable. We must reject the notion, so prevalent in our milieu, that we can in any adequate manner judge the value of human life.

We must promote life and the hope of the gospel. It is not enough to reject death without also promoting life and the only real hope of humanity—the gospel, for it is the power of salvation for everyone who believes (Rom 1:16). If euthanasia’s only consequence were the cessation of pain and suffering, and if this cessation were the summum bonum for man, then euthanasia would be good. Yet, Scripture shows us that man’s physical comfort is not his primary goal. As creatures made in his image, man’s ultimate goal concerns his relation to his Creator, which is why the promotion of life found in the gospel must accompany any rejection of euthanasia.
Pray fervently. Ultimately, our fight is not with advocates of one position or another, but with that ancient serpent who seeks to steal, kill, and destroy (Eph 6:12; John 10:10). As he attempts to spread his culture of death by the spread of deceptive ideologies, we must combat it with the truths of the gospel.

Our culture, with its emphasis on autonomy and individual rights, has produced considerable social pressure to recognize a right to die in order to relieve pain and suffering and attain a ‘death with dignity’. Despite the sympathy that we may feel towards such demands when contemplating the genuine misery that many people experience in their final days, the theological and ethical truths of Christianity highlight the incompatibility of euthanasia with Christian faith and life.

[1] The Economist, Easeful Death, July 19, 2014, 12.

[2] Yale Kamisar, “Physician- Assisted Suicide: The Problems Presented by the Compelling, Heartwrenching Case,” The Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 88, no. 3 (1998): 1.

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