A Christian concept of euthanasia distinguishes prolonging life from prolonged dying.

If only the word were still used in its true and original meaning, we would all believe in euthanasia. For it means “dying well,” and we who aspire to be good-living people should aspire to be good-dying people too. Moreover, the “goodness” of the dying process should include practical thoughtfulness in settling our affairs and making our will, a calm trust in God who through Christ has conquered death, and the reasonable expectation that modern drugs can now relieve the symptoms and control the pain which accompany much terminal illness.

Further, a Christian concept of euthanasia draws a legitimate distinction between prolonging life and prolonging the process of dying. The Hippocratic oath commits doctors to fight for human life, but not to practice what has been aptly termed “meddlesome medicine,” namely the giving of useless and even distressing treatment to a patient whose disease is irreversible. True terminal care should enable the dying to die with peace and dignity. Indeed, as Professor Paul Ramsey of Princeton has written, “to be allowed to die is a precious human right.” Similarly, in the use of drugs there is a distinction “between a determination to relieve suffering in order to minimize the trauma of death and a deliberate decision to precipitate death in order to end the trauma of suffering” (J.N.D. Anderson in Issues of Life and Death, 1976).

Nowadays, however, the term “euthanasia” is used (usually prefaced by the adjective “voluntary”) as a euphemism for “mercy-killing.” It describes the deliberate administration of a lethal dose to a patient who requests it and whose condition is burdensome but not fatal. In Britain the Voluntary Euthanasia Bill of 1969, which was rejected by Parliament, would have permitted such euthanasia in the case of a person suffering from “a serious physical illness or impairment reasonably thought … to be incurable and expected to cause him severe distress or render him incapable of rational existence.” But when does “rational existence” cease? In the contemporary debate, the advocates of “mercy-killing” concentrate less on the senile, whose dulled mental faculties tend to reduce their physical suffering, than on the young whose alert minds make their bodily incapacity all the more distressing.

Brian Clark’s play Whose Life Is It Anyway?, which has been drawing enthusiastic crowds to the Savoy Theatre in London, presents a powerful argument for mercy-killing. Its main character is Ken Harrison (brilliantly played by Tom Conti), a professional sculptor who, paralyzed from the neck down as the result of an accident, will never be able to sculpt again. Throughout the play, able only to move his head and to speak, he lies in his hospital bed and occupies the center of the stage. One’s deep sympathy is aroused for him by the heartless professionalism of the nursing Sister, the shallow evasiveness of the consultant (“I’m a Doctor not a Judge”), and the embarrassing insensitivity of the hospital chaplain who describes the patient as “God’s chosen vessel into which people pour their compassion” (ribald guffaws from the audience).

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The ground on which Ken Harrison bases his plea to be helped to end his life is straightforward: “I don’t want to go on living, because I’m no longer human.” “I’m dead already.… Life is self-supporting; I’m not. I’m never able to direct anything. I’m in the power of other people.” “It’s a question of dignity. Now only my brain functions. I am in fact dead. It’s an indignity; it’s inhumane to preserve my life. Dignity starts with choice.” His argument is paradoxical: since a life without choice is not a human life, the only way for him to become human again is to choose to die. The play therefore has a misleading title. The issue it raises is not “whose life is it anyway?” but “what is human life anyway?”

It is here, then, that our Christian critique of Ken Harrison’s case would have to begin. If living means choosing, could he not equally have chosen to live rather than die? Besides, life is more than choice, more too than the artistic creativity in which he could no longer engage. Life is relationships. And Harrison’s keen intelligence, sense of humor, and warmth of personality make rich relationships possible for him. But he shuns these, and this to me is the most significant flaw in the play. Although consultant, psychiatrist, resident intern, Sister, nurse, social worker, cleaner, attorney, and judge all come in and out of the ward in the course of their duties, Ken Harrison receives no visitors. He has broken his engagement, and asked his fiancée and his parents not to visit him. No friends come to see him either. But this creates an artificial situation. By cutting himself off from those who love him most he has deliberately dehumanized his own life. Further, no reference is made either to the possibility of a relationship with God, or to the after life.

Joni Eareckson offers us a striking contrast, the more telling because it comes from real life, and not from the stage. For she too is a quadriplegic, who as an athletic girl of seventeen broke her neck in a diving accident in Chesapeake Bay. In Joni (Zondervan, 1976), her bestselling autobiography, she is splendidly honest about her struggles with despair. “Why can’t they just let me die?” she asked. When she realized that she would never walk again, or use her arms, or be able to marry her boy friend, she was bewildered and angry, she felt betrayed by God, and she tried to escape into a world of fantasy. Attempting to recall her to reality, her friend Diana said to her: “The past is dead, Joni, you’re alive.” “Am I?” Joni responded; “this isn’t living.”

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How, then, did Joni come to reevaluate the fundamental meaning of human life? It is partly that she acquired extraordinary skill in drawing and painting with her mouth. More than that, she was surrounded by the supportive love of her parents, sisters, and friends. But most important of all, she gained a spiritual perspective. She came to see that her paralysis was only temporary, that one day she will receive a new and glorious body, and that meanwhile her chair is a “tool” to fashion her like Christ. For by it, as she once told 2,000 young people in Kansas City, “God transformed an immature and headstrong teenager into a self-reliant young woman who is learning to rejoice in suffering.” Her second book A Step Further (Zondervan, 1978) expresses a yet stronger resolve to “let God be God” and a yet clearer conviction that “suffering gets us ready for heaven.” (See review, p. 36.) I guess she might even agree, despite all her frustration and grief, that she is more genuinely human now, not less. Her example is an inspiration to many.

John R. W. Stott is rector emeritus of All Souls Church, London, England.

John R. W. Stott (1921 – 2011) is known worldwide as a preacher, evangelist, author, and theologian. For 66 years he served All Souls Church, Langham Place, in London, England, where he pioneered effective urban evangelistic and pastoral ministry. During these years he authored more than 50 books, and served as one of the original Contributing Editors for Christianity Today. Stott had a global vision and built strong relationships with church leaders outside the West in the Majority World. A hallmark of Stott's ministry was his vision for expository biblical preaching that addresses the hearts and minds of contemporary men and women. In 1969 he founded a trust that eventually became Langham Partnership International (www.langham.org), a ministry that continues his vision of partnership with the Majority World Church. Stott was honored by Time magazine in 2005 as one of the "100 Most Influential People in the World."

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