[EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is part of our series on controversial questions. A NO post will normally follow a YES post. Join in by posting your comments.]
by Steve Kindle
Suicide: the taking of one’s life by one’s own hand.
Euthanasia [lit. ‘a good death’] or Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS): the taking of one’s life by another’s hand, with their consent, in order to relieve pain and suffering for the terminally ill with no hope of relief .
In taking the NO position, I am not endorsing euthanasia except in the most qualified sense. The person must be mentally and psychologically competent, all efforts to relieve the pain are fruitless, and the person is terminally ill.
The taking of one’s life (suicide) has long been held the “unforgivable sin.” For Roman Catholics who depend on confession for absolution, the opportunity for forgiveness is lost. It used to be Canon Law that suicide victims could not be buried in consecrated ground. Although the hard line that suicide is a mortal sin, thus deserving of hell, is no longer universally held by the Church, many still hold this belief. In that case, euthanasia would be considered a mortal sin.
For Protestants and other non-Catholics, the example of Judas serves to remind them that, unlike Peter who denied Jesus but asked for forgiveness, Judas chose to take his own life without returning to Jesus for forgiveness. This is understood by many that this consigned him to hell. There is also the verse in Ecclesiastes that states there is, “a time to be born, and a time to die,” that is taken to mean a time appointed by God. Therefore, no one should interfere with God’s sovereign right to end one’s life. (However, if God does choose the time of death for us all, no matter what we do to promote death or prolong the time of death, the time is still determined by God. Therefore, I am inclined to believe this is merely an observation that as one is born, so one also dies.)
Then there’s the notion that grew from the passion of Christ that suffering is redemptive. If we are put in a situation that requires suffering, we follow the example of Jesus who persevered, trusting that we, too, shall ultimately overcome, if not until the resurrection of the dead. This led Peter to counsel his church, “For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you should follow in his steps.” Although this applied then to persecution and martyrdom, it has been extended by some to suffering of any kind.
The ultimate text that underpins most of the concerns of those who oppose euthanasia is the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not kill.” It’s not surprising that all parties involved reference this text, for it can be interpreted to support either side. Those opposing euthanasia insist that “killing” involves taking one’s life or assisting in the taking of another’s life. Those supporting euthanasia site authorities who note that the meaning of the Hebrew word should be translated, “murder,” that is, the taking of a life involuntarily. “Murder” is now the preferred word in most modern translations.
One of the chief objections to PAS is that it is a “slippery slope” that can lead to certain unwanted results such as taking the decision out of the hands of the sufferer and into the hands of others in order to eliminate those deemed unnecessary to society. Interestingly, Oregon has had legalized PAS for twenty years. In all that time, only a handful of people take advantage of it each year, and there have been no efforts to broaden the law to include those beyond terminally ill in advanced stages of pain. No decision should be made on the basis of where it might lead. It is either good or not good as it stands.
The evolution of Roman Catholic teaching is informative. No longer does the Church supply a cut-and-dried answer, but takes a more nuanced look at the question of suicide. The Catechism states, “Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him. It is God who remains the sovereign Master of life. We are obliged to accept life gratefully and preserve it for his honor and the salvation of our souls. We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us. It is not ours to dispose of.” Interestingly, it is this section of the Catechism that offers hope for those who take their own lives. How so?
Before we get to that, it must be clarified that suicide and euthanasia are increasingly not considered the same thing. Whereas suicide is often the end result of psychological or emotional trials which render a person incapable of rationality, euthanasia or PAS is a decision made while in full possession of one’s mental and psychological abilities. In the states where it is legal, PAS can only be done after the patient has passed the requisite mental health requirement.
We begin with the Catechism’s assertion that, “Everyone is responsible for his life before God who has given it to him.” Humans are responsible before God to shepherd their lives in the most responsible way so that our lives reflect the glory of being created in the image of God. Therefore, in the words of the Catechism, “We are stewards, not owners, of the life God has entrusted to us.” There are many angles of approach to the question before us. Due to space limitations for this post, however, I want to deal only with this one: our obligation before God as stewards of our bodies.
I therefore ask these questions. Does God expect us to endure unrelieved, excruciating suffering and pain just because we haven’t died yet? Is there not something ungodly in being forced to live a life with no possible hope for relief? (Cast theologically for fundamentalists, must we allow the effects of The Fall to have the final word?) Must we make our loved ones endure our pain and suffering along with us? Doesn’t stewardship of the body include deciding that this body no longer glorifies God; that it, in effect, testifies to the degradation of life? Is it actually good stewardship to allow a body to endure unrelieved agony if only to (presumably) let God have the last word?
I will leave these questions for you to answer. I offer two opinions from very divergent thinkers:
Stephen Hawking, PhD, cosmologist and theoretical physicist, in a Sep. 17, 2013 interview with the BBC, stated:
I think those who have a terminal illness and are in great pain should have the right to choose to end their lives and those that help them should be free from prosecution. We don’t let animals suffer, so why humans?
For those of you whose reaction is, “Well, naturally this atheist would think that way,” here’s an opinion from a more agreeable source, Desmond Tutu. In a July 12, 2014 Guardian article, “Desmond Tutu: A Dignified Death Is Our Right – I Am in Favour of Assisted Dying,” stated:
I revere the sanctity of life – but not at any cost. I confirm I don’t want my life prolonged. I can see I would probably incline towards the quality of life argument, whereas others will be more comfortable with palliative care. Yes, I think a lot of people would be upset if I said I wanted assisted dying. I would say I wouldn’t mind actually.
The issue, of course, is not easily decided. Both sides have excellent arguments. I write this to encourage you to find your own answer. It is my sincere hope that if you ever fall into the category where your life is plagued by unrelieved suffering, you will have come to your own conclusion about the proper stewardship of you life.