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The right to die?

1 May 2010 | by Roger Hitchings

The right to die?

Voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide are now among the most discussed topics in our society. Less than twenty years ago the idea that ending life should be a matter of choice was considered by most people in Britain to be unacceptable. That situation has changed and it is suggested that now as many as 80% of people would support some form of legalised assisted suicide, provided there were safeguards against exploitation. This has come about due to the combination of a number of well-known people espousing the cause, high profile court cases and incidents of assisted suicide which have grabbed the public imagination, and media reporting which might be questioned in respect of its balance.

Who decides when life should end?

At the heart of the arguments over euthanasia or assisted suicide are the different ideas that people have of the meaning and value of human existence, and of whether human beings have the right to decide issues of life and death for themselves.

Those who argue for euthanasia or assisted suicide usually invoke one or all of the following arguments:

  1. The right to die with dignity
    There are two key phrases that are often used – ‘the right to die’ and ‘death with dignity’.
  2. An act of mercy to the sufferer and the family
    In most situations when someone is suffering or has lost mental capacities not only do they suffer but so do those who look after them (the carers) and the wider circle of family and friends.
  3. Remove a burden from the carer and the family
    Caring for a dementing old person or someone in great distress places a huge emotional, financial and physical burden on the family and especially on whoever takes the main caring responsibility.
  4. Relieves society of the social and financial strain of caring
    It costs society to care for the dying. Those with extreme frailty, dementia and intellectual losses can no longer contribute. It is also a massive social challenge to provide the support services that are necessary.
  5. It is humane
    Is it really caring and compassionate to make people endure ‘unbearable suffering’?

The problem with each of these arguments is that they are subjective in their analysis of what is acceptable and they can easily be extended to wider situations and to other groups.

As Dr Peter Saunders of Care not Killing says:

We should oppose voluntary euthanasia on the grounds that it is unnecessary (because alternative treatments exist), dangerous (because of the slippery slope) and morally wrong (it is contrary to all historically accepted codes of medical ethics and the Judeo-Christian ethic).

What is death?

It is interesting that this question is not asked very often. Death is assumed to be natural and inevitable and so any discussion of its nature is unnecessary. For some people death is just part of the evolutionary process. Death has no purpose or meaning. It is just the end. To embrace death is to bring to a conclusion what has become unacceptable. Unfortunately in presenting the case for euthanasia and assisted suicide some would seriously misrepresent the experience of dying and devalue what is done to ameliorate pain and confusion.

The Bible teaches us that death is a real evil. It is the result of man’s rebellion and sin. The process of death may be distressing and sad but the power of death has been broken for the believer. Death is an enemy and men and women need to prepare for it, but it is not the end (Heb. 9:27). For Christians God’s grace has triumphed over death in Jesus Christ. He died and rose again and now death has lost its sting (1 Cor. 15:55-57).

What constitutes the value of life?

The Lord God formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being (Gen. 2:7).

So the Bible describes the distinctiveness of man as someone made by God and given life by His direct action, ‘God created man in his own image’ (Gen. 1:27). Man is unique within the whole of creation, and his life is the precious gift of God. It is therefore a terrible thing to take that life (Gen. 9:6). Man must die because of sin (Gen. 3:19), but God reserves the right to withdraw life and He only should do it (Deut. 32:39).

We can draw four conclusions from the Bible’s teaching:

  1. Image defines man in his being and not just in his function – made in God’s image he is distinct within creation and displays the characteristics that go with the image (Gen. 1:26-28; 2:19-20).
  2. Man is the image of God and does not simply bear the image– even sinful man is described by James as being in God’s image and that gives life its essential value (Jam. 3:9; 1 Cor. 11:7).
  3. Image is an ontological category – every human being has this basic dignity and identity. Whatever his condition a man has this value. And because he has this dignity he is to be treated with respect and cared for according to his needs.
  4. This has implications for the infirm and the comatose – even at the end of life the dignity and value of man is unchanged. The person is still a person. The so-called persistent vegetative state does not reduce that reality on being in God’s image.

What gives life quality?

What makes life worthwhile? Does suffering have any value at all?  To many people maximising happiness is the core value of life. For that reason suffering must be avoided at all costs even though it is an inevitable part of life, and many achieve great things through it. Where happiness cannot be maximised, quality of life is lost.

In our culture personal worth and value is seen in terms of what we do (function) and what we are able to do (capacity), and also in what relationships we are able to maintain. Suffering and mental decay impair and even remove those things from us. They may also bring dependence and loss of control of bodily functions. It is at this point that quality of life begins to be questioned. These things are seen as unacceptable.

The whole argument about quality of life seems so often to disregard the advances that have been made in the field of palliative care. Effective pain management and psychological, social and spiritual help are now provided. Through hospices, ‘frailty programmes’ and support to carers, much is now done to respond to the effects of debilitating diseases. Similarly the advance in dementia care, especially in Residential units, is providing an environment where dignity is maintained.

For Christians God, His kingdom and righteousness set the agenda for one’s life and even for death. Suffering is often used by God to bring about His purposes in our lives and to mould our characters. The idea that we are without responsibility to a greater power for our lives and choices is a western ideal in the tradition of John Locke. Man is not autonomous. He is responsible to God. Dealing with suffering may be the test that reveals who or what is setting the agenda. The help and blessing that those who suffer with debilitating disease or mental confusion have been to others provides a profound challenge to the suggestion that they have no quality of life.

Roger Hitchings is the pastor of East Leake Evangelical Church, near Loughborough.

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