In the modern world dying has become a problem! The extraordinary advances in science and technology have not only made it possible for doctors to alleviate pain but also to extend life. The possibility of being maintained on life support for months and sometimes years has resulted in much anxiety in both elderly and non-elderly patients. Patients and their families are increasingly involved in medical decisions concerning the end of life. As a result, patients, physicians, the public, and policy makers are faced with complex and difficult questions: Should the terminally ill patient be allowed to die? Should the medical profession have the option of helping these patients to die?
The issue of euthanasia or physician-assisted-suicide is receiving renewed attention and interest in recent years. The recent case of Terri Schiavo and the public debate it sparked shows quite clearly how clouded the question of euthanasia can become. (For my comments please see, ‘A Life Deemed Useless: The Terri Schiavo Case’, Trumpet, May 2005, pp. 2, 8). But renewed interest in this issue can also be attributed to the fact that in recent years a number of European countries have legalized the practice of euthanasia. For instance, on April 10, 2001, the Dutch government approved the ‘Termination of Life on Request and Assisted Suicide (Review Procedures) Act’. And on May 28, 2002, Belgium passed an Act legalizing euthanasia, which went into effect on September 23, 2002.
What is euthanasia? Should Christians condone such a practice?
The American Medical Association’s (AMA) Council on Ethical and Judicial Affairs has defined euthanasia as:
… the act of bringing about the death of a hopelessly ill and suffering person in a relatively quick and painless way for reasons of mercy. In this report, the term euthanasia will signify the medical administration of a lethal agent to a patient for the purpose of relieving the patient’s intolerable and incurable suffering.
The Christian faith does not condone euthanasia because it maintains that human life is a gift of God and has intrinsic and exceptional value. The Christian faith’s rejection of euthanasia is also established upon the general prohibition against murder found in the sixth commandment in the Decalogue (Exodus 20:13).
According to the Christian faith, each human being is made in the image and likeness of God (Genesis 1:27) and given a special vocation. Thus each human being has a unique role to play in the drama of salvation of the world. This emphasis has led some twentieth century theologians like Karl Barth to argue that the dignity of each individual person is profoundly related to his or her uniqueness. God has given each person a unique role to play at this time, in this place and in this manner. And although that role may not be glamorous, it is nonetheless special – it cannot be played by any other person in all of history.
Furthermore, the Christian faith sees life as a ‘gift’ or a ‘loan’ from God. The implication of this is that the individual is not simply a master but a beneficiary. More precisely, the individual is first a beneficiary before he or she is a master. This means that the individual’s life is not at his or her disposal, but he or she must treat it with due care; and due care must mean that nothing should be done to harm or destroy it. These insights have informed and shaped the Christian idea of the sacredness or the sanctity of life, and correlatively its stringent prohibition against harming and destroying human life.
Supporters of euthanasia have presented two arguments why to their mind the practice is not morally unacceptable. The first appeals to the principle of autonomy and self-determination: the person requesting to be euthanized is exercising his or her right to self-determination. This basic ‘right-to-die’ argument appears in its various permutations in pro-euthanasia literature. The problem with this argument is that if the ‘right-to-die’ is so fundamental, why restrict it only to those who are terminally ill? Why not allow those who are in good health, but who feel that their lives are not worth living, to euthanize themselves?
The second argument – to which some Christians may be more sympathetic – is that euthanasia provides compassionate relief from suffering. That is why it is sometimes called ‘mercy killing’. In response, we argue that although suffering is to be resisted because it is not the expressed will of God, human beings do not have the right to take a life in order to relief suffering. The central principle which governs medical ethics is ‘maximize care’, and not ‘minimize suffering’. If it were the latter, then the elimination of sufferers would indeed be justified. But the duty of the physician is ‘always to care, never to kill’.
This wisdom, enshrined in the Hippocratic Oath, is embedded in the tradition of Western medicine for many centuries and should serve as the moral compass for decisions concerning the end of life. Thus the Declaration on Euthanasia of the World Health Organisation (Madrid, 1987) states that ‘euthanasia, or the act of deliberately putting to an end to a patient’s life, either at the request of the patient himself or at the request of his relatives, is immoral’. In similar vein, the Encyclical Evangelium vitae (‘Gospel of Life’) issued by Pope John Paul II 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’.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of ETHOS Institute for Public Christianity. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.