A Theological Clarification on Euthanasia, Doctor Assisted Suicide, Medical Aid to Dying or Whatever?

It is no longer clear today if or why the act of someone deciding to end her life with the assistance of a medical practitioner is a moral issue. We don’t need to go far to see why we’re confused. Take, for instance, the shifting use of metaphors to describe this moral dilemma. Do we call it ‘euthanasia’, ‘doctor assisted suicide’, or, as more recently suggested, ‘medical aid to dying’? Each of these metaphors confuses the state of affairs for our discussion because words bring with them presupposed meanings. Clearly, the metaphor ‘medical aid to dying’ softens the issue, making it a more palatable enterprise. Whereas ‘euthanasia’ and ‘doctor assisted suicide’ are loaded with moral uncertainties. In other words, ‘words’ matter because their meanings are shaped by the history and tradition of their usage. What particularly worries me is that we, as the Anglican Church, are quickly adopting whatever metaphor(s) the culture provides us with, not for a moment considering the ‘meanings’ of these metaphors. If we are not careful in choosing the metaphors or words to describe this moral matter, and unreservedly adopt those of the culture, they will shape our thinking as Christians, and accordingly our position on this issue (instead of letting our own resources such as the bible and the Church’s historical reflections do so). I am choosing to call it euthanasia, the reasons for which will become apparent in the rest of my talk tonight.

But before I move on to clarify what I believe is a Christian perspective on euthanasia, it’s important we consider how our western culture has contributed to our state of confusion besides it’s particular use of metaphors. Fundamentally, we’re confused because, as a Church, we’ve lost connection to the stories that forms it as a community of believers in Christ. And having lost this connection to our stories in the Bible, the stories of our culture are quickly filling the void. What does our culture teach us? John Harris, Professor of Bioethics and Applied Philosophy at the University of Manchester puts it aptly, ‘human beings are more valuable than other beings in so far as they are capable of valuing their own existence. … Therefore, the value of our lives is the value we give to our lives’ (29). What’s key in what Harris says is not the ‘value’ of life, but ‘the act of giving’ value to life. We give value to our lives as opposed to what value is given to us by God. This priority of human autonomy to give value to its own existence shapes much of our discussion on euthanasia, and I would say, negatively. Negatively because in the end any decision regarding euthanasia cannot be discussed because it’s immune in the private world of our personal deliberations, and thus beyond reach of any criticism. In other words, if ‘what I say’ gives value to life not God, nobody else can question ‘what I say’.

But, the biblical stories that shapes ‘what gives value to our life’ and thus, ‘what we do’ (or, at least should be doing), is at complete odds with what our culture tells us. Culture’s elevation of human autonomy totally rejects the biblical principle that the one who gives us value and thus, what we do with out lives is, not us, but God (Gn. 9). Furthermore, as Alistair MacIntyre, a RC philosopher, reminds us, this autonomous understanding of human value that is claimed as our ‘right’ undermines Christian community. When we buy into the absolute right to exercise our autonomy, we inevitably become consumed with the question ‘how may we prevent men and women from interfering with each other as each of us goes about our own concerns?’ But, from a Christian perspective, our moral identity, or ‘our concerns’, is inseparable from our interactions with other Christians as we worship, serve, study God’s Word, and pastorally care for one another in a community of faith. Who we are and what we do is shaped by and within the Church as it seeks direction from its biblical stories trusting that God can speak and act in and through them.

Ok, but what do our stories tell us about who we are, our nature, and value in relationship to our Creator and thus, what we can say about euthanasia? For the sake of time, I am not going to go through and exegete every relevant biblical text for an answer. Instead, I will simply summarize three points about what life is all about from a biblical perspective that I believe should inform how we address this moral issue. They are as follows: One, Life is a gift; Two, life has a vocation; and Three, life is shaped by community.

First, life is a gift, in particular, a gift from God. For Christians, the reason for living begins with and ends with understanding that life is a gift. We are not our own creators. Our desire to live is shaped by the fact we are not determiners of our life. God is! What are the implications? They are twofold.

First, since life is a gift from God, the value of our lives is not just our survival, but also the gift of time and space to live in service to God. Since life is God’s gift to us, it ultimately belongs to Him not us. We are accountable to Him for what we do with our life, and therefore, both in how we live and how we die.

Second, if we reject that our lives, and their value, is a gift from God we are also rejecting the Gospel. In particular, it’s the rejection of the Father’s ultimate gift to us, His Son, Jesus Christ. How so? Consider this. For what purpose did Jesus die on the cross? For what purpose did He devalue Himself to become one of us, live the life of the poorest of Jews, and die the death of a rejected criminal? He did all that because He values you and me more than He values His own life. What value can we place on our lives that can even compare to the value God has placed on our lives that the cross shows us? I hope you agree with me that there can be no such value any human person can place on his/her life.

Quickly summarizing my first point. Life, and its value, is a gift from God. Therefore, we are accountable with how we live and how we die to God. Any rejection of this gift is rejection of the Gospel.

Now second, since life and its value is a gift from God, and we’re accountable to Him with what we do with it, we’re tasked to a particular vocation. As Christians, we do not live simply to survive, to get the most out of life for ourselves and for as long as we can. We live, as the summary of the Law tell us, to love God and our neighbour. Therefore, the decision to end one’s life is not just a personal one. In whatever we do, including how we suffer and die, we are responsible to God and our neighbour. Our lives are not ends in themselves, but rather gifts of time from God to love and serve others. Therefore, the question that should be asked when considering ending one’s life is, ‘how does my decision to end, or not end, my life impact how I am or am not a gift of love and service to others?’

The answer to this question, which now leads me to my last point, only makes sense in the interplay between Christians in the Christian community where a ‘miracle of trust’ can happen. In his book, ‘The Ethical Demand’, Knud Logstrup reminds us that, “it is a characteristic of human life that we naturally trust one another. This may indeed seem strange, but it is part of what it means to be human. Human life could scarcely exist if it were otherwise.” Our decision to live, or not live, especially when we suffer, is directly connected to this element of trust. Trust in what? For the Christian, it is trust that God is with us in our suffering, how we face our suffering can witness to the Gospel, and that there is nothing wrong with being a burden because it allows the community to witness to the Gospel when it cares for the person suffering. The reason euthanasia is on the rise in our society is because trust is increasingly incoherent and it’s incoherent because apart from a Christian community such trust is difficult to find or imagine.

People considering ending their life prematurely often say, ‘I want to be free to end my life so I will not be a burden to someone else’. Such thinking is often considered honourable, brave and even heroic. But I would argue the opposite that ending one’s life early is not an altruistic exercise but actually, a selfish one. Furthermore, there is nothing wrong with being a burden to others and that doing so is actually honourable. How can I say these things?

If our life is not ours, but a gift from God so that our vocation is to serve God in serving others in the context of a Christian community, what we do with our dying must serve this premise. Just because we suffer does not mean our God given vocation ends. Facing and dealing with our suffering in a courageous manner can serve as a witness to the Gospel’s hope of the resurrection. Furthermore, because each individual’s vocation is inseparably connected to the vocation of others in the Church, we do not want to do anything that prevents or limits anyone else from exercising their God given vocation, which includes caring for the sick and dying. I am not saying we shouldn’t seek and do what we can medically to alleviate pain and suffering, thus suggesting, ‘the more we suffer the better we witness to the Gospel.’ For those of us who care for the sick and dying, whether we’re medical practitioners, family, priest or pastoral visitors need to do whatever we can to alleviate pain and suffering. But it’s also the responsibility of the suffering person to allow others to exercise their vocation, as brothers and sisters in Christ, to care for them in their suffering and/or dying, and in so doing be Christ’s presence of love and hope to that person.

A proper Christian understanding and response to the question of euthanasia today must begin with setting what it means to be human and its value, within the context of a community of Christian faith shaped by its biblical stories. We must reject at all costs our western culture’s proposal that what makes a human being valuable is whatever value one gives to one’s life. Lest we be careful to do so, the threat is not just to what makes life valuable, but also to the Gospel, and the Lordship of JC, in whom we stand as a Church and as individual Christians. Furthermore, if we fail to deal with euthanasia on Gospel terms, why would anybody listen to the Gospel?  

A Theological Clarification on Euthanasia, Doctor Assisted Suicide, Medical Aid to Dying or Whatever?