A Biblical Perspective on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide

A Biblical Perspective on Euthanasia and Assisted Suicide

by Renée Joubert

 

In a recent New Zealand Listener article [1], Jack Havill, the president of the Voluntary Euthanasia Society, is quoted as saying his Christian faith is not inconsistent with his belief that people should have access to assisted suicide. His claim warrants a response.

I call myself a Christian also, but disagree with Jack Havill. I believe the pro-euthanasia view is inconsistent with a Christian worldview. I’m not appealing to my own subjective beliefs and opinions, but to what the Bible teaches on the topic. After all, the Bible, read in context, should be a Christian’s final authority and the foundation of a Christian worldview – not the opinions and beliefs of others who may call themselves Christians, but think and act contrary to the example of Jesus Christ.

There are people who call themselves Christians and people who call themselves atheists on both sides of the “assisted dying” debate. The most prominent anti-euthanasia atheist and humanist, Kevin Yuill, has recently written an acclaimed book entitled, Assisted Suicide: The Liberal, Humanist Case against Legalization [2].

Both Euthanasia-Free NZ and the Voluntary Euthanasia Society are secular organisations.

 

Background

The End-of-Life Choice Bill has been submitted to the ballot. This proposed euthanasia legislation affects every New Zealand family as well as the legal, medical and social fabric of our society.

It’s important to be informed about what euthanasia is and isn’t, what the Bill proposes, and if you call yourself a Christian, what the Bible teaches on this topic.  It’s also important to be proactive and there are several ways you can help.

 

What is meant by “assisted dying”, “euthanasia” and “physician-assisted suicide”?

“Assisted dying” is a euphemistic umbrella term for physician-assisted suicide (PAS) and euthanasia. It’s called PAS when a doctor prescribes a lethal drug for a patient to self-administer. It’s called euthanasia when a medical professional kills a patient deliberately, usually by administering a lethal drug.

These are NOT euthanasia:

  • A patient refusing medical treatment or resuscitation
  • Switching off life support
  • Withdrawing medical treatment that has become futile or burdensome

All of the above means the patient dies a natural death from an illness or injury. Euthanasia is an unnatural death caused by a deliberate act, when the person’s body is still able to sustain life. [3]

Sometimes the media and those supporting euthanasia confuse good care with euthanasia. Some treatments, for example, open-heart surgery, involve the risk of death. Foreseeing this risk is not the same as causing death. We need to remember the overarching principle: if a doctor’s intention is to address disease and relieve symptoms, and not to kill, and then he or she has not committed euthanasia if the patient dies.

 

What does the End-of-Life Choice Bill propose?

The End of Life Choice Bill proposes assisted suicide and euthanasia for New Zealanders 18 or older who has either a “terminal illness that is likely to end his or her life within 6 months or a grievous and irremediable medical condition”. [4]

It would effectively legalise assisted suicide on demand since virtually everyone could claim to have an irremediable condition, for example, disability; chronic conditions such as diabetes, asthma, allergies or back pain; mental illness; skin pigmentation; scarring; or ageing-related conditions. Any condition, including depression, could be labeled irremediable when a person exercises their right to refuse further treatment.

It’s important to note that this legislation is not for the dying, but for people who may still have months, years or decades to live.

 

Some reasons why assisted suicide and euthanasia should not be legalised

1.  Legalising assisted suicide sends a hypocritical message about suicide.

2.  Legalisation changes the role of doctors from being healers and carers, to also being killers.[3]

3.  Legalising euthanasia and assisted suicide means making it legal for one person to be involved in deliberately ending the life of another – a profound change to criminal law that is open to abuse.

4. Medical diagnosis and prognosis are too arbitrary to be grounds for legal killing. Doctors make these judgments based on probability, not certainty. So often doctors disagree on a diagnosis. Often patients live longer than their doctors estimated they would. I recently met a lady whose doctor diagnosed a terminal lung condition and “gave” her three months to live. That was 30 years ago!

5. Suffering should never be a ground for legal killing, because it’s universal. Everyone suffers in some way at any moment.

Suffering is also subjective and arbitrary. It would be arrogant to tell a person with say, allergies, “You are not suffering as much as someone who has cancer.” Both people may feel their suffering is unbearable. Feelings are fickle.

A law that allows euthanasia for some will inevitably be extended to others who are also suffering, in the name of equality and avoiding discrimination. Nowhere in the world has euthanasia been limited to the people for whom it was originally legalised.

Once the law implies that suffering people are better off dead, it would be a logical step to consider it cruel to “deprive” people of death simply because they’re unable to make a legal request. It’s now regarded a necessity to euthanise disabled babies and comatose patients in the Netherlands. Dutch and Belgian studies show that doctors and nurses have euthanised patients without consent because “death is in their best interest”. According to a 2010 study, 32 % of reported euthanasia cases in Flanders, Belgium, occurred without the patient’s explicit request. In half of these cases death was the wish of the family. Ninety-two percent of these victims were 65 years or older. [5] Legal euthanasia is a vehicle for elder abuse.

6. Written safeguards look noble on paper but are unenforceable in practice. A 2010 study showed that only 53 % of cases in Flanders, Belgium, were reported. Of those, less than three-quarters followed legal requirements. [6]

 

Why do advocates want euthanasia to be legalised?

The pro-euthanasia lobby wants suicide regarded as a normal and “rational choice”. [7] They want assisted suicide to be legal, because they say, suicide can be violent, unsuccessful and lonely. [8] Therefore, they argue, those that don’t want to commit suicide by themselves should be allowed help to kill themselves.

The euthanasia debate is not primarily about the needs of the terminally ill. The international pro-euthanasia lobby advocates legal assisted suicide without age restrictions – even for children [9], and for suffering caused by any reason [10]. They are pushing eligibility criteria such as “only for the terminally ill” as a mere stepping stone towards their ultimate goal: legal assisted suicide on demand. If the proposed End-of-Life Choice Bill becomes law only one step would remain: eliminating the age limit, as Belgium did in February 2014.

Some politicians want euthanasia and assisted suicide legalised because it would reduce health care costs. Leaders of the Green movement said that they support euthanasia and any other measure that would reduce the human population, because humans are bad for the environment. [11]

A common pro-euthanasia argument is, “I want to control the timing and manner of my death”. Suicide can be regarded an individual matter, but assisted suicide certainly isn’t so because it requires at least one other person. Furthermore, control over death is an illusion. Suicide and assisted suicide can both involve unforeseen complications.

Members of the public who support euthanasia usually do so because they think terminally ill people want it. A UK study of the terminally ill found that the desire for hastened death is uncommon and that treatable depression is a significant factor. [12]

The public also fear having uncontrollable pain. Many are unaware that virtually all pain can be controlled. Dr Paul Dunne, a palliative care specialist, says it’s possible to guarantee that a person won’t be in pain. Only 1% of his patients have been unable to remain conscious in the process. [13] Dr Peter Admiraal, a leading Dutch pro-euthanasia doctor, said, “essentially all pain can be controlled … euthanasia for pain relief is unethical”. [14] It’s a matter of ensuring everyone has access to care by adequately trained professionals.

Where it’s legal, people request assisted suicide or euthanasia mainly for existential reasons or emotional reasons such as loneliness and fear. In 2014, 91 % of Oregonians receiving doctor-assisted suicide gave “loss of autonomy” and 87 % gave being “less able to engage in activities that make life enjoyable” as key reasons. [15]

 

What does the Bible say about euthanasia and assisted suicide?

Assisted suicide and euthanasia are contrary to what the Bible teaches, and therefore inconsistent with a Christian worldview.

  • God created humankind in His image, not animals (Genesis 1:27). The fact that society euthanise animals doesn’t justify also euthanising humans.
  • God, not people or modern society, defines what’s good and what’s evil (Isaiah 5:20). Everyone will stand before the judgment seat of Christ to give an account of their good and evil deeds during this life (2 Corinthians 5:10).
  • God commanded, “You shall not kill” (Exodus 20:13). God allows us to intentionally kill humans in only three circumstances: self-defense (Exodus 22:2), a just war and the death penalty, which are all topics outside the scope of this article. Any other circumstances qualify as the shedding of innocent blood, which God hates (Proverbs 6:16-17).
  • Two assisted suicide requests and five suicides are mentioned in the Bible. Each of the people concerned, apart from Saul’s armour-bearer, were called wicked. Their actions are presented as a warning against walking in their footsteps. Abimelech asked his armour-bearer to kill him so he wouldn’t be killed by a woman (Judges 9:54). Saul asked his armour-bearer to kill him to relieve his suffering. When his armour-bearer refused, Saul killed himself and the armour-bearer killed himself also (1 Samuel 31:3-5). An Amalekite told David that he killed the dying Saul. David regarded his act as immoral, despite the claim that Saul was suffering, already dying, and requested to be killed (2 Samuel 1:1-11). The other suicides were by Ahithophel (2 Samuel 17:23), Zimri (1 Kings 16:18-19) and Judas (Matthew 27:5). Samson’s death was an act of war since his goal was to kill the Philistines (Judges 16:26-30).
  • Jesus died by crucifixion, the death penalty, and not by drinking poison as some have claimed (Matthew 27:32-50). He didn’t commit suicide – He didn’t nail Himself to the cross. He knew the purpose of His death, but didn’t seek it (Luke 22:41-44).  He lay down his life to save humankind (John 10:11-18), motivated by love (John 15:12-13).
  • Elijah (1 Kings 19:3-8) and Job (Job 6:8-9) were suffering and wished to die, but asked God to end their lives instead of committing suicide or asking others to kill them. God restored them and they are held up as good role models for us to follow. Jonah was so angry that he asked God to take his life. God rebuked him for his attitude (Jonah 4:1-11).
  • God still expects people to follow His commandments. We love God and others by obeying His commands (John 14:15, 1 John 5:2-3). God’s people are defined as those who follow His commandments and remain faithful to Jesus (Rev 12:17 and 14:12).
  • Jesus confirmed the validity of the Sixth Commandment and taught us to go beyond its literal meaning (Matthew 5:17-22).
  • Jesus demonstrated compassion through care and healing, but never by killing a suffering person. He never promoted death over life (John 10:10).
  • “Mercy killing” is unbiblical. Loving our neighbours includes not ending their lives (Romans 13:8-10).
  • We should look after the vulnerable and refrain from killing them (Jeremiah 22:3).
  • We are called to be actively involved in rescuing those at risk of being killed (Proverbs 24:11-12) and defend the cause of the vulnerable (Psalm 82:3-4).
  • We can look forward to a new heaven and earth without suffering (Revelation 21:1-5).

 

The last verse of In Christ Alone [16] sums up well what a Christian’s view of life and death should be:

“No guilt in life, no fear in death –
This is the power of Christ in me;
From life’s first cry to final breath,
Jesus commands my destiny.
No power of hell, no scheme of man,
Can ever pluck me from His hand;
Till He returns or calls me home-
Here in the power of Christ I’ll stand.”

 

Yes, we should have love and compassion for others, and especially for those who feel they are suffering. However, biblical love and compassion do not include intentionally ending someone else’s life.

Brian Johnston wrote in Death as a Salesman [17]:

“In contemplating assisted suicide, society is considering a dramatic departure from the values that teach us to respect and protect the vulnerable and the innocent. But remember that society isn’t government officials; society is really just normal people like you and me. As you evaluate assisted suicide, consider carefully, for lives are at stake. Ultimately, the life you save may even be your own.”

 

Renée Joubert is the executive officer of Euthanasia-Free NZ, a nationwide secular organisation leading the campaign against the legalisation of euthanasia and assisted suicide in New Zealand. She welcomes your questions and comments. She can be contacted at renee@euthanasiafree.org.nz

 


[1]  Havill, J. in Macfie, R. (2015, January 8). Dying wishes. New Zealand Listener. Retrieved from http://www.listener.co.nz/current-affairs/health-current-affairs/dying-wishes/

[2]  Yuill, K. (2013). Assisted suicide: The liberal, humanist case against legalization. Palgrave Macmillan. Available from http://www.palgrave.com/page/detail/assisted-suicide-the-liberal-humanist-case-against-legalization-kevin-yuill/?K=9781137286291

[3]  Richmond, D.E. Are withdrawal of therapeutic support and administering lethal substances ethically equivalent? Retrieved from http://euthanasiadebate.org.nz/wp-content/uploads/2012/05/Why-Withdrawal-of-Life-Support-is-Not-Equivalent-to-Euthanasia.pdf

[4]  New Zealand Parliament. Draft for consultation: End of Life Choice Bill. Retrieved from http://www.parliament.nz/resource/en-nz/51HOH_MEMBILL191_1/8943d950dbc6ab474deeebad36145c68e612ebb9

[5]  Chambaere, K., Bilsen, J. et al. (2010). Physician-assisted death under the euthanasia law in Belgium: a population based survey. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 182, 9, 895. doi:10.1503/cmaj.091876. Retrieved from http://www.cmaj.ca/content/182/9/895

[6]  Smets, T., Bilsen, J. et al. (2010). Reporting of euthanasia in medical practice in Flanders Belgium: Cross sectional analysis of reported and unreported cases. British Medical Journal, 341, 174. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.c5174. Retrieved from http://www.bmj.com/content/341/bmj.c5174

[7]  Davidson, H. (2014, November 18). Philip Nitschke tribunal: a clinical, jarring discussion on rational suicide. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2014/nov/18/philip-nitschke-tribunal-hearing-is-there-such-a-thing-as-rational-suicide

[8]  Heaton, T. (2014, November 13). Groups oppose ‘legal homicide’. Manawatu Standard. Retrieved from http://www.stuff.co.nz/manawatu-standard/news/63149584/Groups-oppose-legal-homicide

[9]  Russell, P. (2014, February 18). New Zealand euthanasia campaigner wants child euthanasia [Blog post]. Retrieved from  http://noeuthanasia.org.au/blog/1918-new-zealand-euthanasia-campaigner-wants-child-euthanasia.html

[10]  Jonquiere, R. (2015, February 21). [Public lecture]. Auckland, New Zealand: Fickling Convention Centre.

[11]  Personal interviews with general election candidates, August and September 2014.

[12]  Price, A., Lee, W., et al. (2011). Prevalence, course and associations of desire for hastened death in a UK palliative population: a cross-sectional study. British Medical Journal Support Palliative Care, 1,140-148. doi:10.1136/bmjspcare-2011-000011. Retrieved from http://spcare.bmj.com/content/early/2011/07/04/bmjspcare-2011-000011.full

[13]  Dunne, P. Interview with Dr Paul Dunne on euthanasia and assisted suicide. 1.42 – 3.10 [Video]. Retrieved from http://realdignitytas.com/Viewpoints/medical%20viewpoints%20-%20Dunne.html

[14]  Meuhlenberg, B. Palliative care versus euthanasia. Retrieved from http://billmuehlenberg.com/2010/09/25/palliative-care-versus-euthanasia/

[15]  Oregon Public Health Division. Oregon’s Death with Dignity Act-2014. Retrieved from https://public.health.oregon.gov/ProviderPartnerResources/EvaluationResearch/DeathwithDignityAct/Documents/year17.pdf

[16]  Getty, K. and Townend, S. (2001). In Christ Alone. [Song]. Kingsway Music.

[17]  Johnston, B. P. (1998). Death as a salesman: What’s wrong with assisted suicide (2nd ed). ix. Sacramento: New Regency Pub. Available from http://deathasasalesman.com/

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