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Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide
by Dr. Johnny O. Trail, LMFT

            Just recently the Maryland Legislature voted to make assisted suicide legal under the laws of its state.  While the one desiring to self-terminate must meet the legal criteria for assisted suicide, this creates a precedent that could open the door for other people with various maladies to choose assisted suicide.  One source writes,

            The bill allows a doctor to prescribe a lethal dose of drugs to an adult patient who has a terminal illness with a diagnosis of less than six months to live. The patient has to ask for the prescription three times, once in writing with a witness. They must also take the medicine themselves…The chamber fell silent after the final vote for passage. Seventy-three Democrats and one Republican voted for the measure, and 25 Democrats and 41 Republicans voted against it.[1]

            The debate regarding euthanasia and assisted suicide has been raging for many years.  It gained a “poster child” in Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who was a proponent of the practice.  Kevorkian made videos of himself assisting people in terminating their lives and was ultimately convicted of second-degree murder.  He claims to have “helped” one hundred thirty people commit suicide.  After the airing of an interview conducted by 60 Minutes, there was a great public outcry against Kevorkian and his practices.[2]  This interview caused a chilling effect to fall upon the practice of physician assisted suicide.

            Currently six states and Washington D.C. allow physician assisted suicide.  The states allowing the procedure are California, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont, and Washington.  If Maryland passes the bill under consideration, it would become the seventh.  Once, again the practice of physician assisted suicide has appeared on our national consciousness. 

            What should the Christian’s response be to the topic of euthanasian and assisted suicide?  The word euthanasia literally means “good death.”  It seems reasonable to say that every person hopes for a “good death.”  That being the case, reality does not always afford the person suffering with an illness the blessing of experiencing a good death.  For a moment, one might consider some principles associated with this controversial topic.

            Our society should seek to discourage assisted suicide rather than encourage it—even among the terminally ill.  Currently, there are many organizations that attempt to prevent people from committing suicide.  Recent statistics and reports bemoan the rise in suicide rates among young adults and college-aged individuals.[3]  While this is typically a different demographic than those contemplating suicide for “medical reasons,” it underscores the value that all human lives hold.  

Legalizing suicide could give one further impetus to self-terminate for virtually any reason.  Statistics in at least one nation bear out this conclusion.  One sources says,

As suicide becomes increasingly mainstream and accepted, even celebrated, the number of people doing it will certainly rise, and the boundaries of its application will expand. There is troubling evidence that, where it has been legalized, the number of suicides has risen for people with no terminal illness. In the Netherlands over a period of several years, according to one survey, there was a sharp increase in people killing themselves due to psychiatric distress, namely depression and loneliness.[4]

If assisted suicide becomes legalized in more states, who is to say that persons dealing with various mental disorders will not avail themselves to this course of action when they could be potentially treated for their maladies?[5]  It should give one serious misgivings about the practice.

Moreover, individuals who have witnessed the aftermath of suicides, even physician assisted ones, know that it is very difficult for those left behind to recover from such a loss.  A mother who was dying with cancer, Kara Tippets, wrote a letter to a person who was contemplating physician assisted suicide in his struggles with brain cancer.  She writes,

In choosing your own death you are robbing those that love you with such tenderness, the opportunity of meeting you in your last moments and extending you love in your last breaths. … That last kiss, that last warm touch, that last breath, matters – but it was never intended for us to decide when that last breath is breathed. Knowing Jesus, knowing that He understands my hard goodbye, He walks with me in my dying. My heart longs for you to know Him in your dying. Because in His dying, He protected my living. My living beyond this place.[6]

Every life has value—even when one is suffering.

            While it is admittedly a slippery slope argument, one wonders how far down the rabbit hole our society will go in allowing people to terminate their own lives?  Should people who “suffer” with mental or physiological disorders be euthanized?  Will some in our culture argue for the termination of people with Down’s Syndrome or Autism?  Finally, who would make these determinations?  It becomes clear that allowing self-termination opens an ethical Pandora’s Box that might be impossible to ever close.

To this end, Terri Schiavo might be a prime example of assisted suicide (i.e. withholding life sustaining treatments) that should have never been.  Unlike what proponents of withholding treatments might say, this causes one to worry about what might become of those lacking enough cognitive ability to make their own decisions.  There is some debate about what Terri Schiavo could feel since she was in a persisted vegetative state, but one should not make assumptions about what another person can and cannot feel.  One writer avers,

Because suffering can be difficult to assess in patients with severe brain injuries other than brain death or the vegetative state, physicians should err on the side of treating pain and other signs of distress. If Terri Schiavo was actually in the minimally conscious state, as some have tried to claim, the tragedy of her case was multiplied, as such patients cannot reliably and consistently use words to tell us of their suffering, nor are they likely to be able to attribute meaning to their suffering.[7]

            Along these same lines, who has the right to determine when a life should end?  Should life end when an elderly person becomes such a “drain” on the medical system that one cannot fathom spending large amounts of money to offer life extending treatments?  Does a person of advanced age want to have a bureaucrat make determinations about the type of care one should receive versus the amount that such care might cost the system?

            Unlike what worldly minded people think, there is value in suffering that is used to glorify God.  The suffering of Christ brought about the redemption of humankind.  Similarly, human suffering can bring glory to God.  Paul understood this concept as it pertained to his “thorn in the flesh.”  II Corinthians 12.9-10 says, And he said unto me, My grace is sufficient for thee: for my strength is made perfect in weakness. Most gladly therefore will I rather glory in my infirmities, that the power of Christ may rest upon me. Therefore I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in necessities, in persecutions, in distresses for Christ's sake: for when I am weak, then am I strong.  Paul’s response to suffering was not a sadistic view of human pain.  Rather it was an acknowledgment of the closeness that Paul felt to Jehovah God in his hours of need and pain.   

Self-determination is not the summum bonum of the human experience.  Determinations regarding life and death (even capital punishment) are within the purview of God.  God, as the designer, creator, and sustainer of life, has the ultimate say in matters of life and death. 

            Assisted suicide is the anthesis of “self-love.”  While we do not often dwell on it, God expects His creation to have a degree of self-love.  Jesus talked about this concept in Matthew 22:37-40.   Jesus said unto him, Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind.  This is the first and great commandment.  And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.  Self-love is presupposed in these passages.  God’s people should love themselves to the extent of shunning self-harm behaviors including suicide.

One ethical area of function in decision making is non-maleficence.  Nonmaleficence is defined as,

[A] principle of bioethics that asserts an obligation not to inflict harm intentionally. It is useful in dealing with difficult issues surrounding the terminally or seriously ill and injured. Some philosopherscombine nonmaleficence and beneficence considering them a single principle.[8]

Considering this definition, one might critically examine the actions of the Philippian Jailor and the Apostle Paul.

When the Philippian Jailor wanted to commit suicide, Paul objected to his intended course of action.  Notice this turn of events in Act 16:27-28.  And the keeper of the prison awaking out of his sleep, and seeing the prison doors open, he drew out his sword, and would have killed himself, supposing that the prisoners had been fled.  But Paul cried with a loud voice, saying, Do thyself no harm: for we are all here.  The jailor was intent upon ending his life to avoid suffering the horrible penalty afforded on who had allowed prisoners to escape on his watch. Even in the face of terrible suffering that the jailor potentially had to endure, Paul found his idea of self-termination objectionable.

To this we might add that the death of the Philippian Jailor potentially meant that he and his family would not have had the opportunity to obey the gospel.  Acts 16:30-34 says, “And brought them out, and said, Sirs, what must I do to be saved?  And they said, Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved, and thy house. And they spoke unto him the word of the Lord, and to all that were in his house. And he took them the same hour of the night, and washed their stripes; and was baptized, he and all his, straightway. And when he had brought them into his house, he set meat before them, and rejoiced, believing in God with all his house.

            One must hasten to say that there is a difference between assisted suicide and palliative care associated with end of life decisions.  No compassionate human being would begin to suggest withholding medications that would lessen the pains associated with various illnesses, however there is a difference between allowing nature to take it course versus giving a person medication aimed at ending a life in an immediate fashion.

            Overall, Christians need to make some determinations regarding end of life decisions.  We will all one day die (Hebrews 9.27) unless Jesus returns first.  That being the case, Christians need to make a living will and have a discussion with caregivers about what they want done if they happen to be sustained by respirators or other life giving, maintain treatments.

 



[1]Colin, David (2019).  House Approves End of Life Option Act.  WBALTV11. https://www.wbaltv.com/article/medical-aid-in-dying-bill-passes-house/26751900.

[2] Dr. Jack Kevorkian’s “60 Minutes” Interview (2011).  https://www.cbsnews.com/news/dr-jack-kevorkians-60-minutes-interview/.

[3] Twenge, Jean (2019).  “The Mental Health Crisis Among America’s Youth is Real—and Staggering.”  The Conversation.  https://www.mercatornet.com/connecting/view/the-mental-health-crisis-among-americas-youth-is-real-and-staggering/22296.

 

[4] Payne, David (2018).  Assisted Suicide is not About Autonomy:  It’s a Tragedy That We Shouldn’t Allow.  USA Today. https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/06/01/assisted-suicide-tragedy-devalues-life-euthanasia-column/652290002/.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Tracy, Amy (2015).  The Problem with Ending It All:  A Response to Physician-Assisted Suicide.  Focus on the Family.  https://www.focusonthefamily.com/pro-life/end-of-life/the-problem-with-ending-it-all. 

[7] Fine, Robert L. (2005).  From Quinlan to Schiavo: Medical, Ethical, and Legal Issues in Severe Brain Injury.  Baylor University Medical Center Proceedings  https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1255938/  This writer was in favor of removing life sustaining treatments from Mrs. Schiavo.  That having been said, he opens an ethical quagmire with this line of reasoning.  If caregivers are unaware of a person’s pain, does that mean it doesn’t exist?  At the very least, we should offer minimal care to those unable to defend themselves.

[8] Miller-Keane Encyclopedia and Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing, and Allied Health, Seventh Edition. © 2003 by Saunders, an imprint of Elsevier, Inc. All rights reserved.