Let's respond to this question through the eyes of the family caring for a sick or dying loved one, because that is the context in which most of us face this agonizing issue.
We do not like to see loved ones sick, dying, or in pain. It goes against nature, moral training, and Christian faith to sit happily by when they suffer.
Our first instinct will be to try to find a way to save their lives. We will be supportive of aggressive treatment for as long as our loved one, the rest of the family, and the medical team hold out hope for a cure.
When such hope is no longer realistic and death is imminent and certain, we try to make our loved one as comfortable as possible. There will be little debate that even if the family ends now-futile medical treatments (such as chemotherapy), all reasonable efforts must be made to alleviate suffering. Beyond hoping for a miracle, all who love the dying person will pray for a peaceful death soon.
So far, so good. The question, however, seems to presuppose that this strategy is not good enough when the dying person is in "terrible pain." At that point, it is implied, Christians are hardhearted in not supporting euthanasia.
This is a widely held view today. But it is wrong.
First we need to define some terms. Most thoughtful bioethicists or physicians accept the legitimacy of withholding or withdrawing medical treatments when they are no longer bringing benefit to an irretrievably dying patient. Nor is there any opposition to aggressive use of painkillers and other forms of palliative care.
But euthanasia is a different thing when it means (more than simply withdrawing medical treatment) ordering or implementing some act that kills a dying person: whether it is a lethal injection, an overdose of drugs, intentional starvation, or a gunshot to the head. Morally, it matters little if we do the deed ourselves, give our loved one the means to do the deed, or pay the doctor to do it. In any case, we are involved in an act that directly brings about the death of another human being.
The question is correct in implying that the church, or at least the great majority of its moral thinkers and traditions, opposes euthanasia. This opposition is based ultimately on the commandment "You shall not murder," but is articulated in various other ways, including:
the belief that the intentional taking of the life of a person who poses no threat to the community is a form of murder and is thus intrinsically wrong, even if it is done with good motives;
the fear that the freedom to put to death sick or dying people is a violation of the mandate of the medical profession and would thus deeply corrupt it;
the fear that base motives such as financial gain will interfere with the family decision-making process and lead to what is essentially sanctioned family murder of the old;
the fear, based on historical experience, that political leaders will take over the power to kill the infirm and sick and use it to cut the government's medical expenses or advance some kind of perverse vision of the common good;
an intuitive sense that a good and loving family, or a good and loving nation, will find some way to show its compassion to the sick and suffering that does not involve directly taking their lives.
Fundamentally, Christians oppose euthanasia because it simply does not fit with core Christian theological convictions. God is Creator, not us (Gen. 1:1). Human life is in his hands (Job 1:21). Illness and death are a tragic part of life in a sin-sick world (Gen. 3:19), and we must fight them hardas Jesus fought them hard (Mt. 4:24). The time will come when every person's earthly life is over. At that point, our only hope lies in the resurrection promised to those who belong to Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 15:50-56).
We are called to heal the sick where we can, comfort the dying always, and entrust the dead to God. But we are never called, and we are never free, to hasten the dying across the threshold into eternity.
David P. Gushee is the Graves Professor of Moral Philosophy at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.
Copyright © 2004 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Verses reference in the article are available on this Biblegateway page.
International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide lays out many specifics of the debate.
ReligiousTolerance.com presents both sides of the Euthanasia issue.
Other Christianity Today articles about euthanasia include:
Bishops Protest Against Moves to Legalize Euthanasia in Belgium | Social pressures may cause the weak to feel like a burden, desire to end their life. (July 16, 2001)
Dutch Churches in Last-Ditch Effort to Stop Euthanasia Law | More than 50 religious and social organizations send petition to The Hague, hoping to defeat final vote. (March 21, 2001)
Death by Default | Few seem to have noticed the euthanasia movement's latest gains. (Feb. 15, 2001)
Not a Mercy but a Sin | The modern push for euthanasia is a push against a two-millenniums-old Christian tradition (Oct. 31, 2003)
'Right to Die' Debate Returns to States | A unanimous Supreme Court, upholding bans on doctor-assisted suicide in the states of New York and Washington, has sent the "right to die" battle back to the state level. (Aug. 11, 1997)
More is available from our Life Ethics page.
Articles from our sister publication, Books & Culture, on euthanasia include:
Killing Them Kindly | Lessons from the euthanasia movement. (January/February 2004)
The Roots of Hitler's Evil (March/April 2001)
Professor of Death | Peter Singer and the scandal of "bioethics." (Spring 2001)
Brave New China | The return of eugenics. (September/October 1999)
The Subjunctive That Killed Hugh Finn | Our language about what a patient "would" want turns sympathy into empathy, pity into murder. (March/April 1999)
Earlier Good Question columns include:
Are some people lost "just a little bit" in the same way that others are saved "only as through fire"?
How can I reconcile my belief in the inerrancy of Scripture with comments in Bible translations that state that a particular verse is not 'in better manuscripts'?
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