Christian History Home > 2003 > Not a Mercy but a Sin
Not a Mercy but a Sin
The modern push for euthanasia is a push against a two-millenniums-old Christian tradition.
The case of Terri Schiavo, a severely brain-damaged Florida woman who has been on life support for over a decade, has reopened debate by secular and church authorities alike on questions surrounding euthanasia or "mercy killing."
The matter is admittedly not simple. But the Christian church has, at least until recent decades, spoken on it with a fairly unified voice.
Here as in other issues related to human life and sexuality, the Roman Catholic Church has done a good job of defining and sticking by its official position. On the other hand, at the grassroots, more conservative Protestants than Catholics or any other group of Christians have taken an uncompromising position against euthanasia—to put it in the language of the Catholic Catechism, "an act or omission which, of itself or by intention, causes death in order to eliminate suffering."
But we must make a quick distinction: Almost all Christians have set aside as a special category cases of terminal illness in which treatment is ended in the face of inevitable death. The United Methodist Church's Book of Discipline states, "The use of medical technologies to prolong terminal illnesses requires responsible judgment about when life-sustaining treatments truly support the goals of life, and when they have reached their limits. There is no moral or religious obligation to use these when they impose undue burdens or only extend the process of dying."
In "Allowing Death and Taking Life: Withholding or Withdrawing Artificially Administered Nutrition and Hydration," the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America classes artificial nutrition and hydration as "medical treatment," not basic care. In cases where such treatment becomes futile and burdensome, says the document, "it may be morally responsible to withhold or withdraw them and allow death to occur."
United States law has agreed with these positions, allowing for the cessation of "heroic measures" in cases where these measures only postpone inevitable death.
But such decisions about the artificial extension of life through medical means are not really about killing, only letting die. In cases where, as the Catholic catechism puts it, hydration or feeding amount to "disproportionate means" to sustain the life of someone who already lacks cognitive function, to omit such treatment may well not amount to a direct act of killing, but rather an acknowledgement of our "inability to impede" imminent death.
Indeed, in such cases, Christians have recognized that they are in a unique position to "let go" of God's gift of life because they understand physical death as their road to another, greater life.
However, on cases marked not by the indirect or passive allowing of natural dying processes to take their course but the direct or active ending of life, the church has, at least officially, remained unified: Christians have usually insisted that any intentional, active termination of life rejects the truth affirmed in the Catholic document Evangelium Vitae (1995), that "God alone has sovereignty over life and death." Such acts of killing, whether "merciful" or not, unacceptably dispose of God's gift of life—over which we are not masters but only stewards.
Further, both Catholic and Protestant leaders have recognized that if we legalize such active measures to end life, we not only condone individual acts that are sinful, but we also poison the care of future patients, destroying their ability to trust their own medical and emotional support network. Any logic condoning "mercy killing," however pure or honorable in its inception, is subject to future abuse, as medical practitioners and family members become tempted to end the lives of those whose care is taking uncomfortably high amounts of effort, time, and resources.
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