By / Jul 28

In the first seven months of 2023, four states have liberalized their assisted-suicide laws. Vermont and Oregon have dropped the requirement that people who receive a lethal prescription must be citizens of the state, thereby allowing “suicide tourism.” Washington and Hawaii have expanded those eligible to prescribe a fatal dose from physicians to other healthcare providers. 

Responding to recent developments in state laws, Miles Mullin, ERLC vice president and chief of staff, commented to Baptist Press,

Life is precious from conception to natural death. It is a travesty that some political leaders think that making suicide easier and more accessible is an acceptable answer to the pain and suffering of their citizens. It is the state’s job to protect life, not encourage taking it. Politicians should do the hard work of coming up with better solutions that will support life. . . . [The ERLC] will stand for this Christian ethic, work to cultivate a culture of life and stand against a culture of death that encourages vulnerable, suffering people to seek their own death.

Here is what you should know about the practice of medically assisted suicide in the United States.

What is medically assisted suicide?

Medically assisted suicide refers to the process where a licensed medical professional provides a patient with the means (typically in the form of lethal medications) to end their own life. The patient then administers the lethal agent to themselves. 

Usually, before a patient can be provided with the means for assisted suicide, they must meet specific criteria, including:

  • A terminal diagnosis with a prognosis of six months or less.
  • Mental competence to make and communicate healthcare decisions.
  • Multiple requests over a specific timeframe, indicating a consistent desire.
  • Consultations with at least two physicians who confirm the diagnosis and prognosis.
  • Once these conditions are met, the physician can prescribe a lethal dose of medication, which the patient takes on their own, without the medical professional’s assistance during the act of ingestion.

This practice differs from voluntary euthanasia, wherein the medical provider directly administers the lethal agent. The federal government and all 50 states prohibit euthanasia under general homicide laws. State laws legalizing assisted suicide also violate the Americans with Disabilities Act.

How does medically assisted suicide differ from physician-assisted suicide and “medical aid in dying”?

Physician-assisted suicide was the common term used when lethal medications for suicide were provided solely by doctors. But over the past decade, some states have eased the requirement to allow other medical health providers who are able to write prescriptions, such as nurse practitioners and physician assistants, to provide the lethal dose. For this reason, the term ​​medically assisted suicide is often more accurate. 

However, the phrase “medical aid in dying” has been promoted to obscure the fact that the procedure is a form of suicide. Suicide has always been defined as the act of deliberately killing oneself. But because of the negative connotations associated with the term suicide and the general opposition to having the medical community involved in suicide, the euphemism has been offered to remove the stigma. Some medical organizations such as the American Academy of Hospice and Palliative Medicine and the American Academy of Family Physicians now use the the term “medical aid in dying.” 

In which states is medically assisted suicide legal? 

The locations within the U.S. where medical assisted suicide is legal includes:

  • California,
  • Colorado,
  • Hawaii,
  • Maine,
  • Montana,
  • New Jersey,
  • New Mexico,
  • Oregon,
  • Vermont,
  • Washington,
  • and Washington D.C.

However, Vermont and Oregon do not have a state residency requirement, which means that patients can travel to those states and receive a legal lethal prescription to take their own life. (It’s been reported that Vermont allows the procedure to be done remotely, but currently, travel to the state appears to be required to obtain the prescription.)

What should Christians think about medically assisted suicide?

Medically assisted suicide is the intentional act of taking a human life for the purpose of relieving pain and suffering. Christians should reject suicide because it denies the inherent dignity that God has given human beings and seeks to take the place of God in determining the end of life.  

While those seeking medically assisted suicide and those participating in the practice may want to eliminate suffering, what they are doing is actually undermining the objective value of life. Although the Bible does not speak about the practice directly, it teaches that we must regard life as belonging to God and approach issues of suffering with a critical and biblically-based approach. 

As Kathryn Butler has written,

Anguish afflicts those with terminal illness, and we must minister to our dying neighbors in tenderness (Matt. 22:39; John 13:34–35). But Scripture points us to the sanctity of mortal life, and to our imperative as God’s image bearers to protect life and commit our days to his glory (Gen. 1:26; Exod. 20:13; 1 Cor. 10:31; Rom. 14:8; Acts 17:25). Compassionate intent doesn’t change the fact that in cases of physician-assisted death, demise is artificially—and intentionally—hastened. This is true even while terminal illness broils in the background, and even when death’s purpose is to alleviate suffering.”

See also: How would you counsel someone interested in assisted suicide?

By / Jul 13

In 2016, California’s assisted suicide law called the “End of Life Option Act” was passed which allows terminally-ill patients who meet specific criteria to request lethal drugs from their physician to end their life. The law requires patients to receive clearances of mental competency and terminal status from two doctors and undergo a waiting period before acquiring the drugs. The 15-day waiting period was shortened to only 48 hours by a 2021 revision to the law. 

A lawsuit brought by a collection of disability rights groups and two individuals with disabilities alleges that California’s assisted suicide law discriminates against people with disabilities and minorities, who often fail to receive proper diagnosis and medical treatment. The petitioners in the case explain that the law “steers people with terminal disabilities away from necessary mental health care, medical care, and disability supports, and towards death by suicide under the guise of ‘mercy’ and ‘dignity’ in dying.”

What is the case against California’s assisted suicide law about?

Ingrid Tischer was born with muscular dystrophy, which has required her to seek medical attention her entire life. Unfortunately, Tischer contracted pneumonia in 2021, leaving her especially weak. When she requested therapy to regain her strength, the doctor denied her request saying, “Well, I mean, look at you, there’s nothing we can do for you. And you’ve known this is coming for a long time. So why are you surprised?

Tischer is just one victim of what the plaintiffs call “steering,” the effect on disabled and terminal patients who have difficulty receiving the care they need. The result may compel people to seek assisted suicide to reduce their perceived “burden” on their families, doctors, or the healthcare system. While the doctor did not directly recommend assisted suicide to Tischer, his response implied she was untreatable and unworthy of any other assistance.

The other individual plaintiff, Lonnie VanHook, has quadriplegia and requires around-the-clock care. VanHook says he could not get the necessary hours of medical assistance he needed, which left him depressed, even considering assisted suicide. VanHook is a victim of “attendant deficiency diagnosis.” Medical care was the solution to VanHook’s depression, not suicide.

Proponents of California’s assisted suicide law say that safeguards are in place to prevent non-terminal patients, like VanHook, from accessing lethal drugs to end their life. However, some have challenged this notion, citing the 2021 revision to the law that reduced the waiting period from 15 days to 48 hours and the eradication of other protections as leaving more people vulnerable.

The lawsuit claims the End of Life Option Act violates equal protection and due process laws in the 14th Amendment and the anti-discrimination provisions in the Americans with Disabilities Act and the Rehabilitation Act. The disability rights groups argue that while the coercion is not explicit, the healthcare system’s shortcomings for people with disabilities can implicitly push them toward choosing assisted suicide. 

What is assisted suicide?

The term “assisted suicide,” or “physician-assisted suicide,” is the act of ending one’s life through prescribed lethal drugs to cease the suffering caused by a terminal illness or incurable disease. 

It was first introduced in the United States in Oregon when the 1997 Right-to-Die law was enacted. Since then, 10 states and the District of Columbia have implemented laws allowing assisted suicide. Canada has also legalized what they call, “Medical Aid in Dying,” or MAID, a superficial term for assisted suicide that dilutes the gravity of the undertaken action.

What is the issue?

Assisted suicide laws create significant life and human dignity issues that reflect our society’s larger disregard for the value of life. Genesis 1 tells us that we were created by God and possess inherent worth. With such a respect for life, we have been commanded, “Thou shalt not murder” (Exo. 20:13). The Hebrew word “ratzah,” translated as “murder” in the passage, includes death caused by carelessness and negligence. While assisted suicide is not direct murder, individuals involved are intentionally assisting in taking a dignified life created by God. 

Doctors are sworn to the Hippocratic Oath to “do no harm,” but what greater harm is there to a living patient than to help them end their life? Individuals with disabilities and those experiencing mental health crises should be met with care and compassion—not with encouragement to end their life.

A former lawsuit against the law filed by a coalition of Christian doctors protected them from assisting in the suicide of patients because of their deeply held religious beliefs. While the religious liberty of these doctors should be protected for valuing the lives of their patients, the existence of this law continues to devalue the life and dignity of terminally ill individuals and those with and disabilities.

What happens next in the lawsuit against California’s assisted suicide law?

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. Central District Court of California at the end of April and creates a potential avenue for sweeping changes to assisted suicide laws around the country. This challenge would likely spend a long time in the court system because of the appeals process. The ERLC will be closely watching this important case.

Why is this important to Southern Baptists?

As Southern Baptists, we recognize that every person is created in the imago Dei, possessing immeasurable worth and requiring the utmost dignity. This principle applies equally to every person, regardless of sex, race, ethnicity, or even quality of health and ability. We are called, as Christians, to advocate for the vulnerable like those who are told they are better off ending their lives than living through severe and terminal health complications.

Proponents of assisted suicide erroneously refer to it as “dying with dignity.” However, they fail to see that preserving the individual’s dignity is best achieved by showing them the value of their life amid their trials. Our circumstances do not dictate our worth; it is etched into every individual through God’s design.

In our efforts to care for the vulnerable, we should work to improve the healthcare system so that it provides ethical means of relieving suffering and dignity to those nearing the end of their lives. This does not mean aiding and abetting thoughts of suicide induced by wanting an end to suffering. James 1:2-4 says, “Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance.” While persevering through trials can feel like an unendurable challenge, we should come alongside those in their suffering and show them their worth in Christ. 

As pro-life advocates, we commit to promoting all life from conception to natural death. We must advocate for vulnerable individuals who are preyed upon by a society that tells them their lives have no worth. We strive for a day when the dignity of every individual is recognized by a society that embraces a culture of life.

By / Jul 1

Senator Lankford on physician assisted suicide

Russell Moore on Criminal Justice Reform

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By / Jun 21

On more than one occasion, I have found myself leading a family in prayer while holding the hand of a dying man in hospice care. At this point, the family simply wanted the relief of knowing that the suffering had ended and that the man was finally at rest with Christ. On other occasions, I have found myself making frequent visits to an assisted living facility in order to ministers to church members who were plagued with dementia. With each month that passed, I grew less and less recognizable to my members, spending the majority of my time simply reintroducing myself to them. At this point, the pastoral care was palliative. Apart from miraculous intervention, the people that I was visiting were not going to recover. Death was certain. In fact, funeral plans occasionally occurred at the behest of the family in the very presence of their dying family member. There was no denying the impending “covering of death that is cast over all people” (Isa. 25:7). It is in situations like these that a pastor’s theological mettle really gets tested. Pastoral care beside the death bed is holy ground. For, it is here, in the face of certain death, that all of our white ivory tower theorizing about eschatology looks us in the eyes and asks, “Are the dead really raised?”

As pastors attempt to shepherd their terminally-ill sheep to “the river’s edge,” a growing number of people in the world are suggesting a solution to death that they claim is “peaceful, humane, and dignified.”[1] Instead of suffering for months on end with an incurable disease, Death with Dignity (DWD, hereafter) advocates appeal to humanity’s rather natural desire to avoid pain and suffering. The proposed solution is straightforward enough. As an “end-of-life” option, advocates seek to allow “certain terminally ill people to voluntarily and legally request and receive a prescription medication from their physician to hasten their death.” Such advocacy efforts have already resulted in Oregon, Washington, and Vermont passing legislation that allows “physician-assisted dying,” while California’s law takes effect on June 9, 2016. These states alongside DWD advocates promise those with a terminal illness a “dignified” death. A “dignified death,” according to advocates, is one that affords those with a terminal illness the opportunity to die with a sense of self-respect, self-determination, self-control, and self-awareness. In other words, instead of passively and slowly being subdued by death, “certain” patients actively and willingly enter into it. The solution is often proposed as a merciful and compassionate solution that alleviates a loved one’s suffering. So how should Christians respond to such DWD solutions? How can pastors shepherd their sick sheep well through the valley of the shadow of death?

Admittedly, it is hard to know where to start with answers to such questions. One could begin by pleading for Christians to stop trivializing death. Death first appears in the Bible as a consequence of mankind’s rebellion against God and according to Paul, “spread to all mankind.” It is a universal reality. Funeral jokes and awkward colloquial phrases about how “God just needed another angel” are not real solutions for combatting the ubiquity of death. They are mere distractions from the finality and impending judgment that follows death (Heb. 9:27). Of course, such a move away from the trivialization of death would require the embrace of a robust theology of death. With the vast majority of DWD advocates addressing death from an anthropocentric perspective, Christians must recognize that death is ultimately theocentric. The apostle Paul wrote, “For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord” (Rom. 14:8). As Christians, we do not have the authority to make death about ourselves. Yes, we will die; but our death is unto the Lord. Medical expediency, scientific ability, and twisted distortion of mercy and compassion must not be allowed to shape the conscience on these matters. Our perspective about death must be shaped by the eschatological trajectory of death itself.

Ultimately, though, while taking death seriously and developing a theology of death are vital aspects of one’s response to DWD arguments, there is an even more urgent problem that Christians must face directly. DWD proposals attempt to undermine the continuing significance of the work of Christ. Most people are rightly and understandably fearful of death. Even I will admit that I have left my share of assisted living facilities and thought to myself, “Lord, please don’t let me suffer when I die.” It is in such a moment that the false gospel of DWD promises a “peaceful, humane, and dignified death.” No need to worry about someone feeding you, bathing you, or cleaning up after you. No concerns about being a “burden” to others in your family. No fear of forgetting the names of your spouse, your children, or your grandchildren. No financial burden on your surviving family. No unbearable pain or sleepless nights. No loss of control. Just a prescription, a seat in your favorite spot at home, and then you’re gone. What a compelling offer for the one that is fearful of death and all of its accompanying uncertainty! What a gospel for the terminally-ill, right? While DWD advocates certainly propose this scenario as good news for the dying, the sad reality is that in all these promises of peace, compassion, and dignity, the perpetual comfort of Christ in death is lost.

When Christians speak about the death of Christ, they tend to focus on the forgiveness and freedom from guilt that it provides for those who have trusted in Him. And rightly so! Yet, to relegate the significance of Christ’s death to the believer’s past is to neglect its continuing power in their present life. Christ died to set believer’s free not only from the condemning power of sin, but also from the enslaving power of the fear of death (Heb. 2:14-18). If a barbiturate cocktail could bring peace in death, then Christ died in vain (Gal. 2:21). He himself is the believer’s peace (Eph. 2:14), promising all who believe in Him that “though they die, yet shall they live” (John 11:25). DWD advocates promise peace, compassion, and dignity in death, yet dignity speaks of a state or quality of being that is worthy of honor and respect. For the Christian, such dignity is found in dying in the hope of Jesus’ fear-destroying death and resurrection. The hope for all people who face a debilitating terminal illness is found in Christ alone, who has disarmed the sting of death and conquered the grave (1 Cor. 15:50-58). We do not lose heart in our suffering. Though our outer self is wasting away with terminal illnesses, our inner self is being renewed day by day. The light momentary affliction of things like dementia and cancer, while intended by our enemy to break us, are sovereignly allowed by God to prepare for us an eternal weight of glory that is beyond comparison. Therefore, we do not look to the things that are seen, but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that unseen are eternal (2 Cor. 4:16-18).

Christians must discern the deadly poison in DWD’s promise-wrapped pill. Humanity’s search for peace and compassion in death is a deeply theological quest, which ultimately ends with finding the One who will wipe away our tears, end our pain, and destroy death forever (Rev. 21:4).

[1] FAQS – Death with Dignity, last modified May 20, 2016,

By / Oct 20

On September 11, 2015, the California State Legislature approved a bill called the End of Life Option Act, which would allow doctors to prescribe medicine to help terminally ill patients end their lives.   Currently four states—Oregon, Washington, Montana, and Vermont—allow some form of physician-assisted suicide, or “aid-in-dying,” as supporters call it.  As the New York Times reports, advocates hope that the addition of California will represent a significant turning point for the movement.1 That deadly possibility makes this an ominous Act.

Liberty and the Right to Die

While SCOTUS has denied a constitutional right-to-die,2 the Court has left open the possibility that states could permit physician-assisted suicide, and states that have made such provisions have accepted right-to-die arguments.  Proponents appeal to the highest of American values, individual liberty and autonomy, which are presented as essential to human dignity.  Suffering, extreme pain, and disease that rob patients of their autonomy represent an attack on human dignity, and compassion demands that we help to end the suffering of those who wish to die.  Physician-assisted suicide laws testify to the desperation experienced by those facing suffering and death, who see no better option than to choose death before death chooses them. At least then they are in control, and the choice represents to them “death-with-dignity.”  But is it?

The Death of Dignity

It is certainly a terrible thing to suffer, and to have a disease take away our independence, little by little.  Having learned to prize autonomy, to be in control of our lives, it is a devastating thing to lose. It seems undignified to become once again like a child, dependent on others.  This explains why polls tell us that almost 7 in 10 Americans agree that doctors should be permitted to help a patient commit suicide if the patient requests it. Such numbers suggest that there will be more victories for “death-with-dignity.”

This is tragic, for the victory of death is the defeat of dignity for those who are suffering and facing the end of life.  The argument for autonomy is grounded in the fiction that we must be, or can be, or are in control of every aspect of our lives.  Indeed, suffering and the approach of death are vivid reminders that we do not possess such control. Christians understand that as human beings we are not our own.  Life is a precious gift from God, and while God has given us great freedom, the truth is that we are finite and frail beings from conception until death, dependent on one another and dependent on God for life and breath.  Human dignity and meaning is grounded not in our autonomy, but in our relations with God and one another. To assert absolute autonomy is not dignity or liberty but bondage to deception.

The Death of Compassion

One of the most influential organizations backing “aid-in-dying” is Compassion and Choices, which suggests that death-with-dignity links compassion with the freedom to choose death. However, we should be suspicious of a dignity and a compassion that wills death.  Like other virtues, compassion can be distorted into a vice.  Killing or assisting in death is not compassion. However well intentioned, it is abandonment: those who are suffering need comfort and care, not confirmation that their only or best options are despair and death. This denies rather than affirms their dignity, reinforcing their fear that they are a burden.

Compassion is the virtue that moves us to suffer alongside those who are hurting, and to seek to lighten their burden.  Jesus had compassion for and ministered to those who were weak, sick, hungry, and helpless (e.g., Mt 9:36, 14:14, 15:32; Lk 7:13).  We ought to have compassion for those who are suffering and in great pain. We ought to care for them and comfort them as much as possible.  But we ought not to kill them, or affirm or defend their killing.  Compassion that is rightly ordered to human dignity will not promote or tolerate such a view, but will instead seek to comfort and care for those who are suffering because they matter to us, and they have immeasurable value as human beings made in the very image of God.  Their value is not lost because they are increasingly dependent on us, and are no longer “useful” to us.  By contrast, Dr. John Wyatt cites a slogan of the hospice movement, “not only will we help you to die in dignity, but we will help you to live before you die.”3

It is sometimes said that if we have compassion on animals, which we mercifully “put to sleep” when they are suffering, why would we not have the same compassion for human beings?  In response, it may simply be noted that human beings are different from animals, and we treat them differently in countless ways.  It may also be said that we do not wait for animals to request aid-in-dying; rather, we make the judgment on their behalf. Should we take seriously, then, the suggestion that humans be treated like animals?

The Death of a Profession? 

One of the ominous aspects of the passing of California’s End of Life Option Act is the implicit endorsement given to it by the California Medical Association.  The CMA has long been a vocal opponent of physician-assisted suicide, which has kept many lawmakers from supporting such a bill.  A significant reason that the law was able to pass is that in May, 2015, the CMA dropped its opposition, adopting a neutral position, and calling the matter a personal decision for doctors and patients to make.4   As R. Albert Mohler points out, the CMA’s policy change is an act of cowardice in the face of pressure, for it is not merely taking a neutral stance, but it amounts to support for physician-assisted suicide, since the CMA knew that their change would contribute to the bill’s passing.  Indeed, their opposition was dropped in order that the bill could pass.5

This is an astonishing abdication of professional and moral responsibility, and of one of the most basic moral commitments held by physicians for over two millennia.6  Physician-assisted suicide is not merely a matter of personal liberty, for it requires the assistance of a physician—who by profession is committed to healing and caring, and sworn not to kill or assist in the death of a patient. This, as Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby argues, crosses “a fundamental legal and ethical Rubicon.”7

It is interesting to note that while the California legislature passed the assisted suicide bill, the British parliament soundly rejected a similar measure, which was modeled on laws in Oregon and other states that have legalized assisted suicide.  The reasons for the British rejection of such a measure include the protection of people who are vulnerable, and a belief that it is better to focus on palliative care and comfort.8

A Dangerous Path

One of the concerns about legalizing physician-assisted suicide is the unintended consequences, a slippery slope that endangers the most vulnerable and leads to a duty-to-die for those who have become a burden to society.  Many defenders of a right-to-die dismiss the slippery-slope argument as fear-mongering.  But, in talking about many of the dubious consequences that may accompany the “right-to-die,” Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby rightly asserts that “some slopes are indeed slippery.”9

The slope in the case of “right to die” is indeed slippery, as it has been observed in several European countries.10  Once it is acknowledged that there is a right to die, and that doctors can and should assist patient-dying, there is subtle coercion for those who are suffering to choose death rather than to burden their loved ones.  Safeguards to ensure against such coercion are undermined by the clear message that at some point the choice of death is the best option, the means of preserving dignity.

Once in place, the “choice” of death may also be a way of containing health care costs.  As preposterous as this sounds, in the New York Times article cited earlier, this concern is raised by Dr. Aaron Kheriaty, who points to the case of Barbara Wagner in Oregon, “a cancer patient who said that her insurance plan had refused to cover an expensive treatment but did offer to pay for ‘physician aid in dying.'”

Care, Compassion, and Dying Well

Is it possible that the idea that a chosen death is a good death—a “death with dignity”—is fueled in part by not knowing—or forgetting—what it is to die well, and to care well for those who are suffering?  Is it possible that the fear of suffering and death is driven by a fear of other things, such as the loss of autonomy, the loss of dignity, and isolation? That such fears may be especially acute with diseases such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s, with their “death before death,” is no surprise, for the losses are magnified.  Further, those fears are also reflected in “the social deaths created by the sequestration of the elderly” in institutions that many people would like to avoid.11  We need to relearn how to express true compassion and to care well for those who suffer and fear suffering. We need to relearn how to die well, and with true dignity, and to resist the enemy who delights in death.  Otherwise we ought not to be surprised to find that more people will seek to take control of their dying and to make an early exit their final act of self-expression.

We need not do everything possible to keep someone alive, but “letting die” is not the same as choosing death. There comes a time when we recognize that treatment is futile and death has won a temporary victory. Death is thereby acknowledged but not chosen.  Yet, we must train medical practitioners who are fully committed to healing and caregiving, who refuse to become killers.  Otherwise doctors will merely be purveyors of medicine and equipment that is used at times for life and at times for death, not according to whether they advance life, but whether the life in question is worth advancing.

By / Jul 29

The cover story of the June 29, 2015 weekly edition of The Economist reads “The right to die: Why assisted suicide should be legal”. In the article, the popular and influential British newsmagazine gives a number of arguments why physician assisted suicide should be decriminalized. One such reason the author cites is that “evidence from places that have allowed assisted dying suggests that there is no slippery slope towards widespread euthanasia.” Simply, this is not true.

Physician-assisted suicide is the act of a physician providing a death-causing means, such as prescribing a lethal dose of barbiturates to a patient designed to end their life. The patient then fills the medication at a pharmacy and self-administers it at their leisure. In most contexts, no healthcare professional need be present. This is currently legal in Colombia, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Switzerland, as well as the US states of Oregon, Montana, Washington, and Vermont. This is differentiated by voluntary euthanasia, which is the practice of a physician ending a life, typically by administering a lethal injection to the patient. It is important to note that neither term applies to a patient’s refusal of life-sustaining technology, such as a respirator or artificial nutrition. Neither do the terms apply to a patient’s request that these be withdrawn, for these have had ethical and legal sanction nationally for years.

In the past year, the push within the US by the pro-assisted suicide camp has been enhanced by the highly publicized case of Brittany Maynard, the 29-year-old woman who, after being diagnosed with brain cancer and given a grim prognosis, moved from her home state of California to Oregon in order to attain a legal right-to-die. Maynard’s story, and those similar, elicit sympathy and compassion from those on both sides of this issue. As one who is against allowing patients the right to seek a lethal prescription from their physician, I can still have compassion on those in the midst of agonizing suffering. However, I do not believe that the answer to this problem is legalizing assisted dying. One reason for this is it has been well documented (contrary to the article cited above) that in those countries where physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia has been legalized, a slippery slope gradually occurs.

April 1, 2002: The Netherlands’ “Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide Act” takes effect, making it the first country to enact such legislation. Conditions of the original law included that the providing physician must be convinced that it concerns a voluntary and well considered request, and must be convinced that it concerns unbearable and hopeless suffering of a patient. Further, certain age requirements had to be met. The original law applied to competent adults, though some caveats for minors existed. If the minor patient is between sixteen and eighteen years and may be deemed to have a reasonable understanding of his interests, the physician may carry out the patient’s request for termination of life or assisted suicide, after the parents/guardians have been involved in the decision process. If the minor patient is aged between twelve and sixteen years and may be deemed to have a reasonable understanding of his interests, the physician may carry out the patient’s request, provided always that the parents/guardians agree with the termination of life.[1]
May 28, 2002: The Belgian Parliament legalizes voluntary euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide. Those wishing to end their lives must be under “constant and unbearable physical or psychological pain”. Additionally, only adults may seek assistance in dying.[2]
September 2004: The Groningen Protocol is created by the University Medical Center Groningen in Groningen, Netherlands. It stipulates criteria under which physicians may perform the euthanasia of “severely ill newborns with a hopeless prognosis and unbearable suffering” without fear of legal prosecution.[3]
June 2010: A study appears in the Canadian Medical Association Journal that discovered that out of 208 physician-assisted deaths studied in Belgium, 66 (31.7%) were administered without an explicit patient request.[4]
February 2014: Belgium becomes the first country in the world to lift all age restrictions on euthanasia. For children who request euthanasia, they must have a terminal and incurable illness, near death, and suffering great pain. Parents and healthcare professionals must agree to the choice.[5]
April 2014: An 89-year-old retired art teacher utilizes assisted suicide to end her life at a Swiss clinic after becoming disillusioned with the curses of modern life from emails to fast food. Though suffering from ill health in recent years, she was neither terminally ill nor seriously handicapped.[6]
May 2014: The Swiss organization “Exit” that helps people take their own lives officially votes to extend its services to elderly people who are not terminally ill.
February 2015: In a study published by the Journal of Medical Ethics, approximately one in three Dutch physicians would be prepared to help someone with a psychiatric disease, early dementia, or patients who are simply “tired of living” to die.[7]
March 19, 2015: An article appears in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine revealing that in 2013, Belgian doctors hastened the death of patients “without an explicit request” at the rate of 1.7% of all deaths in the country. This equates to more than 1,000 patients each year that are euthanized without explicit request.[8] Moreover, from 2010 to 2013, the number of reported euthanasia in Belgium has almost doubled (an 89% increase) in the four-year period. Additionally, a great amount of people have asked to be euthanized when their death was not expected in the short term (13% of euthanasia).[9]
June 2015: Dutch Pediatric Association says country should follow Belgium in changing law on euthanasia and scrapping age limit for children in unbearable suffering.[10]

This is merely a small sampling to illustrate how, gradually, assisted suicide and euthanasia laws become increasingly relaxed and open to a greater amount of people for increasing reasons. What begins as only allowing for death in the case of competent, terminally ill adults, spirals into euthanasia without request and allowing children to seek their own termination. Legal scholar and Georgetown University Professor of Christian Ethics has affirmed:

Once a doctor is prepared to make such a judgment in the case of patient capable of requesting death, the judgment can, logically, equally be made in the case of a patient incapable of requesting death…If a doctor thinks death would benefit the patient, why should the doctor deny the patient that benefit merely because the patient is incapable of asking for it? If denying assistance in suicide to those physically incapable of committing it, and for whom death is thought a benefit, amounts to discrimination, why does denying euthanasia to those mentally incapable of requesting it, and for whom death is thought a benefit, not amount to discrimination? The logical “slippery slope” argument is unanswerable.[11]

Similarly, Ezekiel Emanuel, former Chief of the Department of Bioethics of the US National Institutes of Health and current Chair of the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy at the University of Pennsylvania, writing in the Atlantic Monthly, has stated:

The Netherlands studies fail to demonstrate that permitting physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia will not lead to the nonvoluntary euthanasia of children, the demented, the mentally ill, the old, and others. Indeed, the persistence of abuse and the violation of safeguards, despite publicity and condemnation, suggest that the feared consequences of legalization are exactly its inherent consequences.[12]

The evidence from those countries that have legalized physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia is overwhelmingly in favor of a slippery slope. In our own country where we are already seeing invigorated pushes to decriminalize physician-assisted suicide, we need to approach the issue with a clear view of what it is we are asking for. Legalizing physician-assisted suicide or euthanasia would be a step in the wrong direction in comparison to our current situation. If proponents of assisted dying are going to make a strong case, they must come to terms with the facts of what has happened in those countries where it has been legalized, for glossing over the gradual liberalization is not helpful to the conversation, nor is it honest.

For the church, physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia is a very pressing issue, and the big debates loom just over the horizon. We must affirm to our churches what it means not only to have a good life but a good death. A good death is able to minimize suffering when possible, and it affirms the inherent dignity of the person. In a profound, true sense, one cannot evade all forms of human suffering. I am not arguing, of course, that people should simply accept every kind of suffering. However, the opposite position that one must intervene to alleviate all suffering, or even intervene before the suffering begins, is an extreme one. Suffering was not part of God’s original design for his creation. It is the result of the fall, just like death. However, God can use these to accomplish his greater purposes in the world. The notion of suffering and its ability to produce character and make possible a deeper experience with God is littered throughout Scripture. This is a point that opponents to our position will not be fond of, yet it is one that Christian tradition and Scripture stand upon and must not forfeit. The Christian church would do well to recover a robust ars moriendi and stand ready to articulate their position on assisted dying, lest culture attempt to redefine it for us.

[1] “Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide (Review Procedures) Act,” July 5, 2015).

[2] “Belgium legalises euthanasia,” July 5, 2015).

[3] A.B. Jotkowitz and S. Glick, “The Groningen protocol: another perspective,” Journal of Medical Ethics, 32, no.3 (2006) July 5, 2015).

[4]Chambaere, Kenneth, et. al., “Physician-assisted deaths under the euthanasia law in Belgium: a population-based survey,” Canadian Medical Association Journal, 182, no. 9 (2010), (accessed July 6, 2015).

[5] “Belgium passes law extending euthanasia to children of all ages,” (accessed July 5, 2015).

[6] “It’s adapt or die — she couldn’t adapt,” July 5, 2015).

[7] Eva E. Bolt, et. al. “Can physicians conceive of performing euthanasia in case of psychiatric disease, dementia or being tired of living?” Journal of Medical Ethics (2015), (accessed July 6, 2015).

[8] Kenneth Chambaere, et. al., “Recent Trends in Euthanasia and Other End-of-Life Practices in Belgium,” (accessed July 6, 2015).

[9] European Institute for Bioethics, “Belgian Euthanasia Increases by 89% in four years,” (accessed July 5, 2015)

[10] “Dutch paediatricians: give terminally ill children under 12 the right to die,” (accessed July 5, 2015).

[11] John Keown, “A Right to Voluntary Euthanasia? Confusion in Canada in Carter,” Notre Dame Journal of Law, Ethics & Public Policy, Vol. 28, No. 1 (2014), p. 23, (accessed July 6, 2015).

[12] Ezekiel J. Emanuel, “Whose Right to Die?” The Atlantic, March 1, 1997, (accessed July 2, 2015).

By / Mar 20

Recent controversies about the nature of marriage, assisted suicide, the conduct and personnel policies of Christian institutions, and other fraught questions have brought to the forefront of civic discourse among Christians a reticence to be perceived as making judgments. American Christians, especially evangelical Protestants, are judgment-shy. This is not without reason. A handful of prominent Christians have expressed judgment in unloving ways, and a willing secular media has celebrated them as typical Christians. But it is an over-reaction to empty oneself of all practical judgment. The effect of non-judgmentalism is to replace, Seek first the Kingdom of God, with, Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

One species of the broader phenomenon of non-judgmentalism is today far too prevalent among many Christians. It takes the form of the trope that to affirm the categorical and absolute moral norms contained in natural law, human law, or (especially) the Bible or Christian teaching is judgmental, and therefore wrong. Call it the Non-Judgmentalist Assertion. The assertion is both incoherent and unloving.

We might note in passing that behind the assertion is pride dressed up as humility. I am not like those who are judgmental. I don’t judge. But leave that aside and focus here on the problems with the assertion itself.

The Non-Judgmentalist Assertion: Incoherent and Unloving

The first problem is the assertion’s incoherence. The Non-Judgmentalist Assertion generally takes one of three forms. The non-judgmentalist might assert that: (1) A’s action of judging wrongful the action of B is wrong; or (2) A’s action of judging B for taking some action is wrong; or (3) A deserves disapprobation for judging the actions of B or for judging B.

Notice that 1 and 3 are operationally self-refuting. If it is wrong to judge another’s actions wrongful then there is no basis to judge wrongful the act of judging someone’s actions wrongful. If it is wrong to judge a person then there is no basis for judging the person who judges.

In fact, those who assert the Non-Judgmentalist Assertion have no principled objection to judging. Instead, they object to making judgments with which others disagree, or which are controversial, or which might hurt someone’s feelings (unless that someone is deemed, in the judgment of the non-judgmentalist, to be judgmental). Notice that these criteria are entirely subjective. Some judgments should be judged right and others wrong, but not according to the truth or falsity of the judgment.

Form 2 of the assertion is not self-refuting but it generally lands well wide of its intended target. It consists of the non-sequitor that to judge someone’s action (eg, an act of intentional self-destruction, or non-marital intimacy, or abortion) to be wrongful is to judge the person (eg, the destination of her soul or her putatively lesser moral status). This canard is so obviously absurd that it borders on bad faith.

The second problem, which deserves more attention, is just how unloving the Non-Judgmentalist Assertion really is. If someone I love is engaged in wrong conduct then I ought to–and will, if I genuinely love him or her–point out that what he or she is doing is wrong and is likely to lead to a harmful end.

We are called to love our neighbors as ourselves. So how do I love myself? Well, I love myself first by rendering practical judgments upon my own choices and actions, then by acting upon those judgments. I judge that it is better to brush my teeth than to let them rot, and I love myself by acting on that judgment. I love myself by judging that I should not ingest heroin, commit adultery, or eat that extra cookie; and by judging that I ought to read good books, give to charities, and take the stairs rather than the elevator. I render these judgments on the grounds not only that acting rightly will please God, but also that acting rightly will go well for me.

Actions that are good and right are directed toward good and right ends—life, health, knowledge, community, and virtue. Actions that are bad and wrong are directed toward death, illness, ignorance, alienation, and vice, or are directed at good ends by wrongful means. Because one must distinguish between good and bad, right and wrong, in order to act well, judgment is necessarily entailed in self-love. Precisely to the extent that I judge my actions good and bad, right and wrong, and act upon those judgments I am loving myself. Precisely to the extent that I fail to make those judgments or fail to act upon them I fail to love myself.

For “my” and “myself” in the previous two sentences substitute “my neighbor’s” and “my neighbor.” The logic is the same. So, judgment is entailed in loving one’s neighbor.

Don’t we want our lives to go well for us? Of course we do; we act like we do. The question therefore is: Why don’t we want our neighbors’ lives to go well for them, too?

Of course, pleasing God is also important. Right judgments evince a will that is pointed toward God’s eternal kingdom. Wrong judgments, or a refusal to make right judgments (which often amounts to the same thing as wrong judgments), evince a will that is directed toward That Other Place. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments,” Christ told us.

God calls us to love others as He loves us. And God is not content to leave us in our rebellion and sin precisely because He loves us. Right judgment is entailed in His love; it necessary precedes his mercy and grace.

The truth is that the authority of God and the love of God are inextricably tied together. Without the love of God the righteous judgment of God would destroy us all. But without right judgment, love is meaningless. We are called to share God’s love, not to mouth insipid greeting-card slogans.

 Anticipating Some Objections

Yes, yes, I know: Judge not, lest you be judged, and all that. (Matthew 7:1-6, for those of you not proof-texting at home.) This is followed by the admonition first to remove the plank from our own eyes, and then to remove the speck from the other guy’s eye. It does not take a theologian or Bible scholar to notice that, in context, this cannot mean, Never make any moral judgments. For Christ admonishes his followers to make all sorts of judgments, many involving people other than themselves. And having first removed the wood from one’s own eye, what loving Christian leaves his friends to walk around blind?

I am emphatically not suggesting that we ought to walk around thumping people on the head with a King James Bible yelling, Repent thou sinner!, as if we are not sinners ourselves. But we should not fail to speak of the reality and effects of sin. In a world that has forgotten how to live well, we sometimes need to exercise right judgment about actions not only with our lives but also with our mouths.

I am also emphatically not claiming that we should render judgment about the eternal fate of the people who take wrong actions. There are many tepid people who avoid grave sins but also fail to love God and their neighbors (perhaps I am one of them); just as there are many people who burn hot as they run in all directions, who make tragic blunders and perform heroic deeds of faith and love (perhaps I am one of them, too). Which one gets the eternal reward? I have no idea. The point is that we should be prepared to admonish the tepid person to perform great deeds and to admonish the fiery person to avoid pitfalls. And we should be prepared to do this whether the tepid or fiery person is ourselves or someone else.

Yes, Christians are called to exercise mercy, and to forgive. And notice that the Non-Judgmentalist Assertion renders that call meaningless. Show mercy in lieu of what righteous, just response? Forgive what offense? The non-judgmentalist has no answer. Only the person who judges rightly can show mercy. Only someone who recognizes wrong can forgive that wrong.

 Loving by Judging

How can we judge well so that we can love our neighbors well? Serious Christians ought to give that question serious consideration, yet in our day the problem is largely unexplored. In the space I have left, allow me to open to view just one area in need of exploration.

Consider how Christians might respond to the marriage crisis that our nation is currently experiencing. Many Christians are reticent to speak out about the evils of divorce, cohabitation, adultery, and out-of-wedlock birth for fear of offending divorced people, single mothers, and sexually-active young people. But consider that many of those people might actually want us to judge. For example, in our age of unmarried cohabitation and no-fault divorce, many single parents, divorced people, and especially children have been wronged by unfaithful exes and parents but have been denied the vindication that attends a legal judgment in their favor. By expressing moral disapproval of infidelity and abandonment we demonstrate our concern for those who have been harmed by the licentiousness of the sexual revolution and our belief that the wrongs they have suffered really matter.

And even those who do not want to hear our moral expressions might need to hear them. If a man is considering leaving his wife or his pregnant girlfriend and no one is willing to challenge him to be manly—to honor the obligations he has created for himself—then he is far more likely to perform an action that will cause tangible harm to his girlfriend, wife, or children and great moral harm to himself.

There is more to it than this, of course. But we need to start by acknowledging that exercising right judgment about human choices and actions—our own and others’—is the loving thing to do.

Adam J. MacLeod
Adam J. MacLeod is Associate Professor at Faulkner University, Jones School of Law. He holds degrees from Gordon College and the University of Notre Dame.

By / Nov 21

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.

By / Nov 13

Some questions should never be expressed, given their timing and content. The police pull you over and ask for your driver’s license. You do not say, “Oh? Why?” You give them your license. The boss says, “I need 20 copies of this in an hour.” You do not reply, “Can someone else do it?” You find a copy machine. When duty calls, duty expects an answer. That’s how life works. We don’t get to challenge authority very often without adverse consequences; and sometimes, a mere question crosses the line. Every parent understands. When we tell our kids, “Take out the garbage,” or, “Go to bed,” we expect compliance, not useful dialogue about ways, means, and rationales. In those situations, “Why?,” is an offensive response. Children should not search for reasons to disobey or construe their obligations as narrowly as possible—e.g., by going to bed without going to sleep or by setting the garbage outside the door instead of the dumpster.

So meet the lawyer of Luke 10:25-28, a man who asks an ill-timed and inappropriate question. He comes to Jesus with an ultimate worry, a concern shared by many in that day. He wants to know—or he thinks he wants to know—what an overachiever like him must do to inherit eternal life. There has to be a plan, he expects, some way of facing the judgment of God with exceptional confidence. Maybe this Jesus would know, if anyone does, given his miracles and teaching. At the very least, it could do no harm to hear the prophet’s answer. Which laws—among the Old Testament’s 613 options—really count? What are God’s priorities, if some matters of the Law are taken to be weightier than others?

From one angle, of course, even this first question would get it wrong, if “do” suggests a transactional pathway to eternal bliss, where enough merit makes the grade. In that case, we have no hope, not precious little. But the lawyer may innocently desire to know what it’s like to love God as he ought to do, given his place among the chosen people; and if so, we haven’t seen his dark side—not yet, anyway. The latter appears soon enough, however, as this conversation unfolds. When Jesus applies the right kind of pressure, the lawyer forgets himself and asks the exact wrong question, one that should never be voiced, given its content and intent.

At first, Jesus tests the lawyer’s interpretive skills: “What is written in the Law? How do you read it?” (v. 25). In other words, he asks, ‘Which laws capture the essence of what Yahweh requires?,’ and the lawyer responds correctly with two answers. The righteous man loves the LORD with everything he’s got, as per Deuteronomy 6:5 (v. 27). But something else is needed, taken from Leviticus 19.18: he would love his neighbor as himself. Do these two things, Jesus confirms, “and you will live” (v. 28). But lawyer takes another step, this one too far, desiring to justify himself. He asks, “And who is my neighbor?”

On the surface, this question seems harmless. What’s wrong with knowing, in specific detail, who exactly one’s “neighbor” is? If Jesus would address this detail, the might examine himself more usefully, to see whether he is ‘in’ or ‘out’ of the covenant. But Jesus sees through the question: in fact, the lawyer is playing a clever game. Once Jesus says, “Behold, your neighbor,” the lawyer will also learn who his neighbor is not. He will know who the strangers are, defined as people he doesn’t have to care about. Thus Jesus tells the parable of the Good Samaritan, thereby teaching simple but profound lesson. Draw in your mind a ‘circle of concern,’ and put yourself in the center of it. If you were the lawyer, you’d want to know, “Who is inside my circle, and who is outside?” But from Jesus, he gets this response: “The circle moves with you.” In other words, all kinds of people can and do fall within one’s circle of concern, given the usual patterns of daily life. The Samaritan understood this fact intuitively and acted upon it. The others did not; and the lawyer is expected to regard the conduct of these others as moral failures.

In the same way, we face similar temptations and may find ourselves asking Godless questions. Was that a knock on the door? A friend in need? We answer, “No, I guess not,” but some part of us really means, “I hope not.” Was that Fred from the church, back there by the roadside, struggling with a flat tire? We tell ourselves that it was not, while we secretly add, “Also, I hope not.” In our worst moments, we think of people not as friends and neighbors, but as transient liabilities, as problems we can do without. Someone else will come along. Someone else will do the right thing, if not us. But worse cases than these arise all the time, even here in America, where we need so little and want so much. In fact, worse cases come up especially in America, and they’ve done so ever since 1973.

Perhaps the most famous article ever written on abortion is also, in its own perverse way, the bravest. In 1971, while most Americans were still pro-life, Judith J. Thompson published an essay in which he stipulates what defenders of abortion typically do not: “the fetus is a person from the moment of conception.” But never mind, Thompson argues: the personhood of unborn children, even conceded, does not require us to ban abortion. It can be morally permissible to kill a baby, she argues, even when the mother’s very life is not threatened by ongoing pregnancy (Philosophy & Public Affairs, Fall 1971). Most abortion advocates, however, are not so candid. On the contrary, their strategy looks very much like the lawyer of Luke 10:25-28. If we can gerrymander the boundary between ‘my neighbor’ and ‘the stranger,’ we limit our bioethical liabilities. In this case, the categories are ‘persons’ and ‘non-persons,’ and one cannot help noticing the energy devoted to missing an obvious point about the unborn: they are living human beings and thus living human persons.

In debates about the beginning and end of life, modern societies expend great effort examining the personhood of what is to be killed. It’s either permissible or wicked to kill the unborn and infirm, depending on whether they are enough like the rest of us to count. Some argue that it’s actually good to kill here and there, rather than let live, though they still construe the resulting deaths as tragic. But if we get back to the lawyer’s question, a new worry arises, one that precedes any particular answer to the question of personhood, as clear as that answer actually is on both ends of life. That is, it should concern us greatly that lots of people in this country are asking nasty, ill-timed questions, two of them being, (1) Are human fetuses really unborn children?, and (2) Are desperately sick, elderly people really living?

On the surface, such questions seem harmless enough. They merely ask whether one has duties toward the unborn and elderly, given how they differ from regular people in certain respects. Yet they also serve a deeper, less admirable agenda, even perhaps a wicked one, depending on what responses they contemplate; for what accompanies the question is the unspoken thought, “I hope not,” as per our other examples. In other words, the questions themselves reduce the unborn and elderly to the status not of friends and neighbors, but of assets and liabilities. They are either in the way or out of the way, and thus the parable of the Good Samaritan finds its mark. We might have thought, “We’d be sinning, of course, if we were to mistreat actual persons.” But this parable implies that the wrong turn can happen even sooner. Some inquiries should never be engaged, especially when they seek to limit our moral exposure. From that perspective, the question, “Who is really human?,” can be a nasty one indeed.