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.

Even without such selfish motives, Christian critics of euthanasia point out, what happens once the door has been opened to allow criteria (say, degree of pain and suffering) by which a person may be judged justified in actively ending their own life? Those same criteria must, logically speaking, be allowed to rule similar decisions of whether to end the life of a person incapable of deciding for him or herself—as in the current case of Terry Schiavo.

The question of whether to allow active measures by which a patient could decide whether or not to end their own life is not, as we might expect, a new one brought on by advances in technology. In the classical world, suicide was considered an honorable option. Consider the decision of the founder of stoicism, Zeno (c. 263 B.C.), to drink poison in order to avoid the suffering caused by a severe foot injury.

The Hippocratic School took a different position—one decidedly in the minority, but one that eventually, in the Christian West, won the day. The Hippocratics opposed both euthanasia and abortion. Their oath states, "I will neither give a deadly drug to anybody if asked for it, nor make a suggestion to this effect."

From the beginning, Christians have approached questions of suicide or mercy killing from the standpoint of life's sanctity as a gift from God. To end a life under any circumstance is to violate that gift, not to mention the commandment "Thou shalt not kill." It is, as the Catholic catechism says, "a murder gravely contrary to the dignity of the human person and to the respect due to the Living God, His Creator."

The Biblical basis for this "sanctity of life" position draws from the understanding of human life as gift expressed in Acts 17:25, the understanding of man created in the image of God found in Genesis 1:26-27, and the understanding of covenant in Genesis 9:5-6 and Exodus 20:13. The duty to respect human life appears in Genesis 9:5; 4:8-10, 15, and our responsibility for the life of fellow humans is taught in Genesis 4:9 and Deuteronomy 21:1-9.

This Christian position was not publicly questioned even in cases of severe suffering (though individual Christians, faced by such suffering, no doubt made decisions counter to this position) until the nineteenth century, when new anesthetic options made mercy killing more attractive in severe cases. The conversation started in the Victorian period swiftly ended at the middle of the twentieth century, however, in the face of revelations of the Nazis' programmatic eugenic killings.

It heated up again in America in the 1970s, when a young woman who went into a coma, Karen Ann Quinlan, survived for nearly a decade in what was called a "vegetative state." The New Jersey Supreme Court intervened to allow Quinlan to be removed from a respirator, and concerned observers began searching for a definition of a life no longer worth living, to justify mercy killing at least in cases where the patient could make their own decision.

In the face of Christian teachings on sanctity of life, it is hard not to see this trend towards legitimizing euthanasia or mercy killing as a strong sign that we are indeed living in a post-Christian world.

—Helpful articles on the history of Christian positions on euthanasia are available in both the New Dictionary of Christian Ethics and Pastoral Theology, ed. David J. Atkinson et al. (InterVarsity, 1995) and the New Catholic Encyclopedia, ed. Bernard L. Marthaler et al. (Thomson Gale, 2003). Much more information on the current discussion is provided on the website of the International Task Force on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide, whose stated goal is to "make certain that a patient's right to receive care and compassion is not replaced by a doctor's right to prescribe poison or administer a lethal injection."

Chris Armstrong is managing editor of Christian History magazine. More Christian history, including a list of events that occurred this week in the church's past, is available at Subscriptions to the quarterly print magazine are also available.