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August 2020 Feature

In his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Daniel Dennett writes about a mythical substance known as “universal acid”, something so corrosive that it will eat through anything that it came into contact with, transforming everything it applies to.

While such a substance is mythical, the same cannot be said for certain “dangerous ideas”. With the potential to revolutionise how we understand what it means to be human, these ideas, when widely accepted, would “eat through just about every traditional concept, and leave in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.”

As such, it seems that Roland Chia has rightly recognised the issue of euthanasia as precisely such a “dangerous idea”, and has produced a comprehensive Christian response to this vexed topic. Not simply a question of medical or Christian ethics, Chia’s book The Right to Die? demonstrates that euthanasia has profound implications on the identity of the medical profession, the way society views the sick, and finally how a person approaches the question of sickness, suffering and death.

Yet as Chia has himself noted, one difficulty for opponents of euthanasia was the framing of the debate as that between progressive policies facing the (irrational) obstruction of conservatives. Chia, for instance, has noted that such proponents often appeal to ideas of “social progress” to justify their reasoning. When framed in such a manner, those who oppose euthanasia would be somehow seen as opponents of progress (however vaguely defined), and most likely on the “wrong side of history”.

Without detracting from Chia’s important work, this essay suggests that Chia’s comprehensive response to the issue of euthanasia can be supplemented by reference to Pope John Paul II’s encyclical Evangelium Vitae, especially through the use of the concepts of the “culture of death” and the “culture of life.” The advantages of this overarching frame are as follows

i) That it provides an effective rhetorical counterpoint to those who link euthanasia and social progress
ii) That it is conceptually helpful as it analyses the problem of euthanasia as part of a deeper cultural malaise
iii) That it envisions in concrete terms what a culture of life would look like as an alternative to a society which accepts euthanasia.

I) An effective rhetorical counterpoint to those who link euthanasia and social progress

The importance of effective rhetorical catchphrases cannot be underestimated in the debate over euthanasia. Proponents of euthanasia have commonly used phrases like “death with dignity”, “compassion” and “mercy” to make their case. As Chia has noted, the word mercy is “the principle for which people from various faith communities, including Christians, may have the most sympathy. As such, advocates often “speak as if they have a monopoly on this virtue” In a very insightful article on the rhetoric surrounding euthanasia, Jacqueline Harvey notes that right to die groups quickly realise that certain words like “suicide” do not sit well with the public. They have been quick to rebrand themselves accordingly. The Hemlock society now calls itself “Compassion and choices”. As such, it would be important for Christians who oppose euthanasia to resist such euphemisms and to call things by their proper name.

John Paul II seems to be helpful in this respect. In his 1995 encyclical “The Gospel of Life”, John Paul II painted a dramatic clash between two irreconcilable ways of life prevalent in the world today; namely that of the culture of death and the culture of life. Situating the issue of euthanasia as a manifestation of the culture of death, the Pope diagnoses this culture as one which embodies “a…failure to recognise the sanctity of human life and human relations in favour of…personal autonomy, self-assertion and the consequent instrumentalization of social relations.” By contrast, the culture of life “requires as its cornerstone the recognition that Jesus Christ, the Redeemer of Man is the centre and purpose of human history’ and therefore the humanity in which he shares is worthy of reverence, not domination and exploitation.”

Raymond Dennehy has noted the rhetorical genius in the introduction of the phrase “culture of death”. It was “the kind of term that people who create advertisements dream about. It immediately catches the attention and sparks curiosity, and it is addictively repeatable. It was destined to adorn the title page of books” More importantly, in this narrative, so-called progressives are no longer seen as heroes. Instead, they are “the barbarians at the gates” and “conservatives” are the defenders of civilization. As such “instead of coming across as inhumane obstructers of medical research…[critics of euthanasia] can assume the positive stance of defending the most fundamental of all values, life.”

 The disruption of the narrative of progress and compassion which proponents of euthanasia promote would be important in making the case against euthanasia to members of the public. Jacqueline Harvey further notes that there was at least a 20-percentage point difference in public support for euthanasia in opinion polls, depending on how the question is phrased. For instance, about 70 percent of respondents in the United States say that they support “ending a patient’s life by painless means”. The support drops to 51 percent when the question asks if they supported “assisting the patient to commit suicide.”

ii) Conceptually helpful in analysing the problem of euthanasia as part of a deeper cultural malaise.

 Jack Kevorkian, a leading proponent of euthanasia, declares his impatience at Western society’s apparent reticence in accepting euthanasia, as compared to other socially “progressive” trends. Noting that there is a widespread acceptance of the idea of “planned births”, which is seen as rational and responsible, Kevorkian exhorts western societies if it is not time “for a society obsessed with planned birth to consider diverting some of its attention and energy from an overriding concern with longevity of life at all costs to the snowballing need for a rational stance on planned death, i.e. the purposeful ending of human life by direct human action.”

Kevorkian remarks illustrate what he sees as the logical connection between attitudes which drive a desire for “planned birth” and that which should also that of a “planned death.” Ironically, he would likely agree with John Paul II’s description of contemporary culture possessing a “Promethean attitude which leads people to think they can control life and death by taking the decisions about them into their own hands,” though unlike the Pope, he would see it as a good, rather than a bad thing.

Attitudes held by Kevorkian ought to be understood within a particular cultural context, embodying certain social attitudes and outlook on life and the nature of the human person. In Evangelium Vitae, they embody attitudes characteristic of a “culture of death.”

Nevertheless, while Evangelium Vitae does not say so explicitly, some scholars have noted that the encyclical has at its crosshairs, the culture of liberal modernity, “a tradition of theory and practice aiming to organise political life around the rights of the individual understood as a primarily self-interested being” and which despite its talk about the dignity of the human person, would nevertheless see it fitting to extinguish the lives of innocent human beings both at the moment of conception and also towards the end of life.

This s equating of liberal modernity with a culture of death would seem inaccurate at first sight and even if accurate, irrelevant to the Singapore context. As Carson Holloway observes, liberal politics would consider “the right to life” as the source of human rights. As such, the irreverence towards life in liberal societies seems a deviation of liberal principles. Moreover, this debate over liberal modernity seems academic as Singapore has largely attempted, since independence, to emphasise that it is an “Asian” or “communitarian democracy” with the emphasis on the importance of the family and eschews hedonistic individualism.

However, Holloway argues that it is not so much that liberal democracies offer defences for the right to life. Rather, it is the flawed logical basis in which it grounds the right to life “which “leads to the widespread selective disregard for the right to life we see today”. Unlike the Christian vision, which grounds the right to live in the fact that the human person is made in the image and likeness of God, liberal modernity’s account tries to do so “from the desire for self-preservation.” Holloway explains,

Thus the modern account of the right to life in principle opens the door to the very culture of death described in Evangelium Vitae, a society in which the inviolability of the weakest, most defenceless human lives is not recognised. Hobbes may be correct that the weakest man may kill the strongest, and that both, therefore, have an interest in agreeing not to kill each other. But it is certainly true that even the strongest unborn baby (or the strongest terminally ill bedridden patient) poses no threat whatsoever to even the weakest normal adult. The latter therefore has no reason to agree not to kill the former- that is, no self-interested reason, no reason that modernity recognises.

Similar concerns are present in communitarian democracies. Beneath the rhetoric of community and family, Michael Barr has noted that Singapore is an example of “the triumph of the modernist project at the level of the nation-state” where policy justifications and assessments of success or failure are often made in quantitative terms, with economic survival as the overriding criterion. Indeed, Chia himself has pointed out the problem when he notes that one can easily make the communitarian case for euthanasia,

When the interests of the community outweigh the interests of the individual, the former will determine the proper course of action that should be taken. It is not uncommon for advocates of euthanasia to argue that ending the life of the chronically ill individual is justifiable if it brings relief to family and friends from the pain and sorrow having to helplessly watch their loved one deteriorate, and if it ends the drain on limited medical resources.

As shown in the previous paragraphs, whether intentionally or not, both the liberal and communitarian models carry seeds of the culture of death. It would be thus necessary to provide an alternative cultural lens if Christians are to unmask these dangers and build a culture of life.

iii) That it envisions in concrete terms what a culture of life would look like as an alternative to a society which accepts euthanasia.

So open your eyes, nurses, open and see,
not a crabby old woman, look closer, nurses — see ME!

The last two verses of the famous poem “See me”, invites healthcare workers in a nursing home setting to see an elderly person not simply as “a crabby old woman”, but someone with a history. In the final analysis, it is an appeal to society at large to experience a kind of metanoia, a new way of seeing, especially its elderly and vulnerable members.

One could make the case that this poem may well be a poetic response to what it means to build a culture of life. It begins with how we “see”. The encyclical Evangelium Vitae argues that for this to happen, there is a need to develop a “contemplative outlook”. John Paul II explains.

Such an outlook arises from faith in the God of life, who has created every individual as a wonder (Ps 139:14). It is the outlook of those who see life in its deeper meaning, who grasp its utter gratuitousness, its beauty and its invitation to freedom and responsibility. It is the outlook of those who do not presume to take possession of reality but instead accept it as a gift, discovering in all things the reflection of the Creator and seeing in each person is living image (Gen 1:27; Ps :5). This outlook does not give in to discouragement when confronted by those who are sick, suffering, outcast or at death’s door. Instead, in all these situations it feels challenged to find meaning, and precisely in these circumstances, it is open to perceiving in the face of every person a call to encounter, dialogue and solidarity.

This outlook will enable Christians to develop critical cultural awareness within them and in the world at large. Too often, they may well imbibe uncritically, attitudes which are contrary to the Gospel of life. They may well be guilty in creating and participating in “structures of sin” which provide the background to cultural attitudes which make the push for euthanasia thinkable and reasonable in the first place.


 The question of euthanasia is part of a larger clash between two irreconcilable ways of looking at the world. It is in the final analysis, fuelled by a clash of cultures. It is hoped that this paper may help suggest further areas of research, especially the cultural roots of euthanasia, and to help develop practices, institutions and beliefs conducive to nurturing a culture of life and a civilization of love. For the proclamation of the Gospel of life is in the final analysis not “simply a reflection, however new and profound on human life. It is the “proclamation of the very person of Jesus” has come so that we may have life to the full.

Nick Chui has a Masters in Theological Studies form the Pontifical John Paul II Institute for Marriage and Family, Melbourne and is an educator in a mission school. He has published scholarly articles with Trinity Theological Journal and Church and Society in Asia Today. He is currently Secretary of the Catholic Theology Network.