The controversial debate on Euthanasia (Mercy Killing) is periodically revived by its proponents, who believe that death is the only dignified way out of a situation that is incurable and fraught with much pain and suffering.
This subject has cropped up again because Pinky Virani, author of the book “Aruna’s Story” petitioned the Supreme Court to sanction Euthanasia for Aruna Shanbagh. She is a nurse who has been lying in a vegetative state for the last 37 years. Virani argued that prolonging such a life was in contravention of Article 21 of the Constitution, which guarantees life with dignity. The least one could do was to accord her dignity in death by Euthanasia.
What Virani asked for was not death by a lethal injection or drugs, but a gradual tapering off of nutrition, which would lead to her death. The Supreme Court’s decision to permit Passive Euthanasia in this case, has generated a lot of discussion between proponents and opponents, though the ruling is still pending legislation.
Obviously the general consensus is against mercy killing. While we leave it to the legal experts and medical activists to quarrel over the implications of the judgement, it is our Christian responsibility to affirm our stand on this important issue. Our debate should take place within the context of our religious beliefs. Pro-Life is our distinctive Christian ethic, and it is on this surmise that we build our arguments regarding Euthanasia.
SANCTITY OF LIFE.
As Christians, we believe that the Doctrine of Creation and the Doctrine of Redemption illuminates the issues surrounding Man’s death.
“Numerous are the world’s wonders, but none more wondrous than the body of Man,” says Sophocles.
Man is made in the image of God for the worship and enjoyment of God. God breathing into the human form has distinguished Man from all other creatures, and has established a mysterious connection between them. When dust and Divinity met, Man became a living soul. The Divine image resides in his mind and spirit.
Life is precious and our freedom lies in obedience and service to God. Our concern is always for life and living relationships. Respect for God’s creation requires us to refrain from unnecessary destruction of life. Though it is morally justifiable to kill animals for our sustenance, it must be done in a humane way. But there is no justification for taking the life of another human being. Euthanasia if involuntary, is murder, and if voluntary, is suicide. Christ did not advocate suicide because he was too busy advocating a satisfying alternative, “I am the way, the truth and the life.”
Life is God’s gift and the end is determined by Him. We merely hold it in trust until He thinks fit to end it.
We believe that pain and suffering have a place in human experience, and therefore our intellect and moral sense must understand and approve of it. The most hopeful and constructive attitude is that a person can endure suffering through trusting in God. He is strengthened by the conviction that “all things work together for good to them who love God.” (Rom 8:28) Such faith eliminates bitterness in the face of suffering. It could even promote a cheerful acceptance of pain.
We learn from the life of Joni Erickson Tada. It took her three years to reconcile the paralysis of both lower limbs and her helplessness, with belief in a loving God. From bitterness to trust, from suffering to a total reliance on God, God used her suffering to draw her thoughts to Himself. Suffering exposes the limitation of our own resources and forces us to rethink the direction of our lives in relation to God.
“This happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.” (2 Cor 1:9)
Paul said that he pleaded with God not once but three times for the removal of the ‘thorn in his flesh.’ God’s answer was clear. “My Grace is sufficient for you for My power is made perfect in weakness.” (2 Cor 12:9)
Suffering is not always penal though many Christians and non-Christians subscribe to this belief. Suffering may be the plight of many an innocent person. To the question “Who did sin?” Jesus unequivocally stated, “Neither hath this man sinned nor his parents, but that the works of God may be manifested.” (Jn 9:2,3.)
Suffering may be for Man’s moral and spiritual development. Because man is so limited in his intellectual capacity to grasp the infinite purposes of God, suffering remains a mystery.
But despite this lack of understanding, God’s goodness and love transforms our attitude and gives us endurance. Assured that God is good, we cast our care upon Him and develop the conviction that everything falls within the purpose of God.
“The face of suffering undoubtedly causes the greatest challenge to the Christian faith,” says John Stott.
Suffering is not to be voluntarily evaded by suicide or euthanasia, nor is it to be pursued with masochistic pleasure. Self mortification will not get us closer to heaven. The age of grace has eliminated the need for such penance.
Every human being must eventually die. Through the miracles of Science and Technology people are living far beyond the Biblical average of ‘three score and ten.’ But as Eccles 5:2 says, just as there is a time to be born, there is a time to die.
Death is the ‘last enemy.’ We describe it as ugly, mean and tragic because of the pathetic corpse and its coldness and pallor. But for the Christian, there is this assurance in Ps 33: 18,19, “ The eye of the Lord is on them that fear Him and on them that hope in His unfailing love to deliver them from death.”
Death signifies Man’s helplessness before God and his ultimate dependence on Him. We are assured that “He that heareth my word and believeth on Him that sent Me has passed from death into life.” (Jn 5:24)
Those who believe in Christ’s passion, death and resurrection have a new vision of death. It is a link with Christ in the liberating history of salvation.
“The Christian sees death as the last and crucial occasion for the testing of his faith where victory is to be won in Christ, and his redemption is fulfilled.”
(Christian Information Service 1969, “Ought Suicide to be a Crime?”
Lying on his death bed D. L. Moody said, “Someday you will read in the newspaper that Moody is dead. Don’t you believe a word of it. I shall be more alive than now. I shall have gone up higher. That is all.”
In his book “Broken Things, Dr. M R. DeHaan wrote, “The greatest sermons I have ever heard were not preached from pulpits but from sick beds. The greatest deepest truths of God’s word have often been revealed not by those who preached as a result of their seminary preparation and education, but by those humble souls who have gone through the seminary of affliction and have learned experientially the deep things of the ways of God.”
Amos, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Job – they refered to death as a shadow. One can walk through the valley of shadows fearlessly by holding on to the hand of the Good Shepherd.
Death is not the finale. Its sting has been swallowed up in victory through our new life in Christ. The soul enters forever into the presence of God. Faith finds meaning in death.
“If you expect death as a friend, prepare to entertain him; If as an enemy, prepare to overcome him. Death has no advantage except when he comes as a stranger,” says Francis Quarles.
This is a deliberate decision to end life. It is a failure to trust in God, and presupposes hopelessness. Christ said, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live even though he dies; And whoever lives and believes in Me will never die.” ((Jn 11:25)
The Christian must adhere to the principle that life is sacred. There are many good Christians who support euthanasia on grounds of compassion. Compassion is not pity. Even genuine compassion cannot circumvent the law. The Christian alternative is “Compassionate Intensive care.”
“Christianity demands a level of caring that transcends human inclination,” says Erwin Lutzer.
“Where there are means of exercising care and compassion towards the patient in his dying, and of relieving his ultimate distress, respect for God’s creation and for the consequent victory of human life in general, would tell against the practice of Euthanasia.”
Anglican Contribution to the debate on Euthanasia- “On dying well” (1975)
If we take steps to hasten death, we would be assuming a responsibility which is not ours. A ‘deliberately contrived death’ has no place in Christian character. Though the hope of the Christian lies beyond death, God’s control of life has not been relegated to Man. When law makers try to de-criminalize Euthanasia by assisting suicide, they are attempting to be wiser than the Divine law giver.
Based on Bonhoeffer’s dictum “Man has come of Age,” Mackinnon put forth his ideas that as Man has reached maturity, his mature decisions must be accepted, whether he wishes to accept suffering or abandon life.
A mature Christian will certainly not induce his own death or demand to be put to death. Maturity is seen in willing submission. A man may pray for death if it is God’s will, but he will not take his life.
Most Christian doctors will categorically oppose active euthanasia. But the unnecessary prolongation of life after cerebral death has occurred, is mere ‘meddlesome medicine or ‘furore therapeutics,” says Dame Cecily Saunders.
“There comes a time even in the most dramatic lethal illness when it is right finally to withdraw support systems, remove tubes, the infusion apparatus and lets the patient depart privately, peacefully and with dignity.”
(Agate J: Ethical Considerations – How far does one go?”)
The worth of a man is because of the image of God in him and his ability to enter into a relationship with God. When the cerebral cortex is dead, meaningful life is over. So to insist that ‘where there is life there is hope,’ is inexcusable emotionalism.
“The moment of death in general, should neither be accelerated nor delayed by ‘meddlesome medicine,’ says Twycross. (The Dying Patient – 1978.)
However, after specific measures are withheld, and the patient continues to live, he is entitled to basic human care.
Bishop Ian Ramsay of Durham addressing a British Medical Association meeting in 1972, offered a clue to deal with contemporary moral problems.
“The Christian will not be motivated by the supposition that death is to be avoided at all costs. In any particular case, the positive Christian attitude towards death has naturally to be weighed alongside the other principle – the respect for human life in society. We can come to a complicated moral problem yielding no easy decision. But we must hold together all relevant moral principles that we can collect, and analyze facts further, until a creative decision emerges.”
CHRISTIAN ALTERNATIVE TO EUTHANASIA:
A person who is terminally ill has two great fears – the fear of pain and the fear of death.
Modern methods of pain relief have proved to be a boon to patients who are terrified of ‘death agonies.’ Regular pain relief with drugs can eliminate such fear.
But the better half of treatment is based on love – To show patience, gentleness and empathy. A hug, a listening ear or just a silent presence at the bedside! There should be no forcing on them the truth of their health status, but there is a need to answer the patient’s questions honestly. Kubler Ross in her studies found that dying patients usually realise that they are dying, even when effort is made to conceal facts. Therefore, giving false assurance of a good prognosis is wrong.
Palliative Care (In Latin, ‘palliative’ means ‘to cloak) must be directed towards improving the quality of life as long as it exists. It involves a multidisciplinary approach, with doctors, nurses, chaplains, social workers and psychologists, who are specially trained in sensitively handling communication with the dying. It aspires neither to hasten nor postpone death, but to enhance the quality of life for as long as the patient lives, so that he can die with dignity. Narcotic drugs can be used for prolonged periods without any detriment to the patient’s personality or activities. (Twycross.) Good nursing care will keep the patient comfortable.
Fear of imminent death can make the patient anxious and restless. The Christian doctor must be aware of his role as a witness for Christ. He has an obligation to see that the soul which is ready to pass away is prepared. Thomas Bruder in a letter to a junior doctor said, “A Christian doctor must have an unashamed but unostentatious Christian conviction, a genuine love, finding itself in first class medical care and a real concern for the patient and his family.”
Care of the dying is a joint responsibility of the doctor and the pastor. Many members of the clergy are uncomfortable and frightened in the face of sudden and violent death. They grope for words and instead of providing assurance, instill fear. The pastor must be conversant with the various stages a person goes through before he comes to accept death. The patient must be assured that death is not an enemy, because Jesus has taken the sting out of death through His own death and resurrection. So death is swallowed up in victory.
Palliative are is best given in hospices. A hospice is a religious and medical institution. Here the last weeks of the dying patient are enriched. Dame Cecily Saunders was the founder of the Hospice Movement. The first was St. Christopher’s at London in 1967. The hospice is midway between a hospital and a home.
Though Medical Science believes that death is the end, for those with faith, death is full of meaning, a gateway to a new life. Apart from pain relief and nursing care, the hospice provides love. In St. Augustine’s words, “Where there is love there is no pain or if there is pain, it is the pain that is loved.”
Hospices are the Christian alternative to Euthanasia. The Church must come forward to establish such hospices in every part of the country. It must bring God’s love down to those who are dying. This is one way for the Church to preserve its identity as a Ministry of Healing.
Published in Journal of Contemporary Christianity.
Vol.2 Number 4 May 2011.