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January 2020 Credo

In 2008, Khaw Boon Wan, who was then Minister for Health, made a number of cryptic statements to the local press about the possible legalisation of euthanasia in Singapore.

Responding to the minister’s veiled suggestion with enthusiasm, the Straits Times editorial ludicrously equated the legalisation of euthanasia with “social progress”. Its author audaciously predicted that “euthanasia is looking like a candidate whose time is nearer than most people would imagine.”

The ensuing debate on the possibility of legalising euthanasia in the nation-state was vigorous but short-lived. It tapered off as bodies like the Singapore Medical Association and some faith communities voiced their objections to this move.

The National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) issued a statement on 6 Nov 2008 that categorically opposed physician-assisted suicide and euthanasia because these practices are a violation of the sanctity of human life.

Recent months, however, have seen several attempts to revisit the issue.

For example, another Straits Times letter-writer argued that euthanasia ought to be viewed in a positive light; that we should “harness its usefulness in reducing unnecessary suffering for those who are dying”.

For some people, euthanasia may seem like a viable solution to the related problems of alleviating the suffering of the terminally ill and the scarcity of medical and financial resources. This is because we are shaped by the culture we inhabit, which is profoundly pragmatic and utilitarian.

This pragmatic utilitarianism is given voice by philosopher John Hardwig when he argues that “it is sometimes the moral thing to do for the physician to sacrifice the interests of her patient to those of non-patients—specifically to those of the other members of the family”.

Hardwig regards the proposition that the needs of the family should trump that of the patient as something of an undisputed axiom. There are many cases, he writes, when “…the interest of family members often ought to override those of the patient … Only when the lives of family members will not be importantly affected can one rightly make exclusively or even predominantly self-regarding decisions.”

Christians can never evaluate the ethics of assisted suicide and euthanasia purely from the pragmatic and utilitarian standpoint. This is because the Bible compels us to ask deeper questions about what it means to be human, and about the value of the life that we by God’s grace have come to possess.

We find in Scripture the remarkable assertion that human beings—in contradistinction to the other animals—are made bearers of the divine image by the grace of God (Gen 1:26–28). According to Paul Jewett, the concept of the divine image is of paramount importance because it “confers on the human subject with the highest possible distinction”.

It is precisely because human beings are made “in the image and likeness” of their Creator that human life is sacred. However, it must be emphasised that just as humans are the bearers of the divine image because of divine grace, so human life is sacred because it is a gift from God.

As Richard Gula explains, “the sanctity of life, or human dignity and value, is not intrinsic to human life as such, nor is it dependent on the evaluation of other human beings or on human achievement. Rather the sanctity of human life… is ultimately conferred by God”.

Because human beings are created in the divine image and human life is a divine gift, the Bible prohibits murder—the wilful and pre-meditated taking of human life (Exodus 20:13). This includes suicide or self-murder, of which euthanasia is a form.

Thus in his wide-ranging encyclical entitled The Gospel of Life (Evangelium Vitae), Pope John Paul II roundly condemns euthanasia because it is a “grave violation of the law of God, since it is the deliberate and morally unacceptable killing of a human person”.

By legalising euthanasia, society is in fact saying that certain human lives are “unworthy of life” (Lebensunwertes Leben in German). It is exerting enormous, if unseen, pressure on the sick, the vulnerable and the disabled to believe the murderous lie that it is their “duty to die”.

Thus, beneath the heady rhetoric of compassion, which gives euthanasia a veneer of nobility, lurks something insidiously sinister. As Pope John Paul II puts it: “…what might seem logical and humane, when looked at more closely is seen to be senseless and inhumane”.

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor for the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.