This morning I want to tackle the complex moral issue of euthanasia. I appreciate that there will be many people here at St Martin’s who have seen loved ones suffer from illness, and we might be divided upon our opinions as to whether euthanasia is a good thing or not.
The word euthanasia comes from a Greek word meaning a “good death.” Although the original Greek meaning of the word Euthanasia did not mean the deliberate ending of a life, that is what it has now come to mean. According to the House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics, the precise definition of euthanasia is "a deliberate intervention undertaken with the express intention of ending a life, to relieve intractable suffering".
My question this morning is very simply, what should the Christian response be to euthanasia?
When thinking about euthanasia we have to make a distinction between voluntary, non voluntary and involuntary euthanasia. Voluntary euthanasia is when a patient specifically requests to die. If a patient is unable to communicate their wishes, maybe because they are in a persistent vegetative state, and the decision to end their life is taken by another this is termed non voluntary euthanasia. And if life is terminated in opposition to a patient’s wishes this is term involuntary euthanasia. Clearly those who are in favour of euthanasia are against involuntary euthanasia, so this morning we will be focusing mainly on voluntary and non voluntary euthanasia.
Presently euthanasia in the UK is illegal, although there is a big debate going on in parliament and in the media about the law regarding assisted suicide.
WHAT DOES THE CURRENT LAW SAY
The 1961 Suicide Act makes it an offence to encourage or assist a suicide or a suicide attempt in England and Wales. Anyone doing so could face up to 14 years in prison.
This law has been challenged by a number of people, most notably Debbie Purdy, from Bradford, who suffers from multiple sclerosis, and who has been to the House of Lords to seek clarification on whether her husband would be prosecuted if he helped her go abroad to die. So far, more than 100 UK citizens have travelled to the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to end their lives. And although some cases have been considered by the Director of public prosecutions, as yet no relative has been prosecuted.
THE ARGUMENT FOR EUTHANASIA
So what is the argument in favour of legalising euthanasia in the UK?
On the website of the pro euthanasia organisation Dignity in Dying, they highlight their aim which is “that everyone has the right to a dignified death where suffering is minimised, and this means: Choice over where we die, who is present and our treatment options. Control over how we die, our symptoms and pain relief and planning our own death.”
Those in support of euthanasia argue that since we have the right to decide how we live our lives, we should also have the right to choose the manner and timing of our death. If you have a pet which is ill and is suffering, we do not think it is cruel to have that animal put down, instead we think the compassionate thing to do is to release it from its suffering. And therefore, when someone is in severe pain, or distress, they should have the right to take their own life.
So should the law be changed, and euthanasia legalised in the UK? To answer this question, I want us to consider the Christian response to euthanasia.
THE CHRISTIAN RESPONSE TO EUTHANASIA
THE SANCTITY OF LIFE
The Christian church has always opposed euthanasia. Pope John Paul II, in one of his very influential papers stated that “the direct and voluntary killing of an innocent human being is always gravely immoral.”
Paradoxically those who oppose euthanasia have similar convictions as those who support euthanasia, in that both wish to maintain human dignity and preserve the freedom of the individual to choose how to confront death. But there the similarities end.
At the very heart of the Christian faith, is the belief that as humans we are all made in the image of God. And therefore every person has a unique value and status which can never be diminished, and that there is such a thing as the sanctity of life. Because all human life has dignity and worth that comes from being made in the likeness of God, it must always be protected and respected. And therefore the intentional terminating of life, is contrary to the will of God. This is why we were given the commandment not to murder, which many theologians would also include taking our own lives.
The reason the Christian church is against euthanasia is because we have a moral duty to conserve and respect life.
THE VALUE OF SUFFERING
There is also within Christian teaching the belief that suffering can sometimes be positive. For example, we have to remember that it was through Jesus’ death on the cross, that we are saved. Through suffering many people have shown immense creativity, and it can also lead to spiritual growth. Through suffering it is also possible to come to a much greater knowledge and experience of God in our lives. Such as Paul, who through his own problems came to the realisation that God grace was sufficient, and that God’s power is made perfect in weakness. This is why Paul writes "I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.’ (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)
In addition through our own suffering we can learn to understand the suffering of others and how we can support and encourage them.
Of course by saying this, I do not want to glorify suffering in any way, and because some people grow through suffering, it doesn’t mean that every does. And therefore, quite rightly the aim is always to minimise pain as much as possible.
THE WIDER SOCIAL, MORAL AND ETHICAL IMPLICATIONS OF EUTHANASIA
Supporters of euthanasia champion the right to die, which is perceived as the ultimate expression of free choice. But should people be allowed to have this right?
In answer to this question, we have to consider the wider social, moral and ethical implications of what would happen if euthanasia was legalised.
Euthanasia is not just a private matter for those who would wish to end their lives at a time of their choosing. There would be a social consequence of allowing euthanasia, and we therefore cannot separate the interests of the individual from the interests of a society as a whole.
There are several very important arguments why I believe euthanasia should not be legalised.
THE SLIPPERY SLOPE
Firstly, we have a moral duty to protect the most vulnerable people within our society. If euthanasia is legalised, there is a concern that it could be miss used. Today’s right to die could become tomorrow’s duty to die. Even if safeguards were put into place to protect people, there would still the real danger that some people could feel pressurised into accepting euthanasia. This is a particular concern for the elderly and the disabled – it was for this reason that Peter Dunthorne, who himself was disabled, was very strongly opposed to euthanasia. Cardinal Basil Hume writing in 1997 said “The sense that they were unwanted, burden to their families and a cost to society, and would undermine their self worth. Today’s right to die would become tomorrow’s duty to die.”
This is not an idle fear, studies conducted in the Netherlands, where euthanasia is legal, showed that half of all cases of euthanasia were non voluntary – in other words without the express wish of the patients in question. When the Abortion Act was introduced in 1967, many of the safeguards and assurances given when the Bill was passed have largely been ignored, and abortion today is now more widely available than the original bill intended, and it has changed public attitudes to abortion. There could be similar and far reaching, and potentially more dangerous consequences from the legalisation of euthanasia.
If euthanasia was legalised, what sort of message does this send out to those who very elderly, or disabled and dependent upon the care of others. There is a real danger that we start to see people’s worth entirely in terms of their productive efficiency. Whereas as Christians human value and worth depends on our relationship with God and others.
Another great concern is that legalising euthanasia would potentially undermine the essential bond of trust that must exist between the doctor and patient. The duty of the medical profession has been to see that a patient dies in peace and comfort, not to terminate the patient’s life. This is why the British Medical Association has consistently opposed any changes in the law regarding euthanasia.
The moral arguments for and against euthanasia are complex, but I firmly believe that there are strong theological, moral and ethical reasons why euthanasia should NOT be legalised.
The sanctity of life is the cornerstone of all social relationships in society. We cannot separate the interests of the individual from society as a whole. Any changes in the law regarding euthanasia would reduce the protection of the most vulnerable in society, and I believe devalue the importance we place upon life.
With the advances of modern science, we are able now to prolong life. But when someone is in the final stages of terminal illness, and treatment at this stage would only prolong the process of dying, without proportionate benefit to the well being of the patient, then I think it is acceptable for treatment to be withdrawn or withheld, in order for death to naturally occur. This however is very different to deliberately giving someone drugs in order to cause death.
I believe allowing people to die with dignity is essential, but I do not believe euthanasia is the way ahead. Genuine care must involve being with people in their suffering, and learning to discover the dignity and value of human life within that state. The emphasis should therefore be on providing the best care possible, minimising pain, and making peoples final days as rich and rewarding as possible.
The Christian gospel challenges us to demonstrate to every individual care and faithful commitment.
I want to conclude with this quote that I came across some years ago. “You matter because you are you. You matter to the last moment of your life, and we will do all we can, not only to help you die peacefully, but to live until you die.”
When service of this kind is rendered to people, it is also rendered to Jesus himself, who said, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.” (Matthew 25:40)