Euthanasia: Mercy or Murder?
Note from Randy: I used this article in a course I taught at Multnomah Bible College—Soc 111, Contemporary Social Ethics.
This article was written in 1986, and appeared in the January-February 1994 issue of Eternal Perspectives, EPM's quarterly newsletter.
Applying Biblical Principles to Life’s Most Difficult Dilemma
Your father is comatose, dependent on a hospital respirator for every breath. He has been in this condition for ten months and there is no medical hope for his recovery. Your doctor suggests he be disconnected from the respirator and allowed to “die with dignity.”
Your child is born with a severe mental handicap, and a birth defect that doesn’t allow him to breathe properly. Though the birth defect is surgically correctable, your child will never live a normal life, and may always be dependent upon you or others. Your doctor says you should consider withholding the surgery, thereby allowing the child to die and preventing him a lifetime of abnormality.
Your spouse has terminal cancer. She’s lost her hair, her appetite and her will to live. She pleads with you to get a pill for her that will relieve her misery by “putting her to sleep.” Compassion would compel you to “put to sleep” a suffering animal. Would it be right to respect your wife’s request to escape her suffering though a quick peaceful death rather than a long lingering one?
Given the advances of modern medicine, it’s possible to maintain biological life far beyond the point where death would have naturally occurred throughout human history. This blessing sometimes seems a curse, however, both to those who are suffering, and to their loved ones who must watch them suffer. What should the Christian think in such a case? What should he do?
These are not theoretical questions. I’ve had to face them personally, in different ways, with both of my parents. I’ve walked with other families as they too have had to work through these issues. As medical science continues to improve its life-saving and life-maintaining capabilities, more and more people will routinely face such decisions. The issue is so big, and its implications so far-reaching, we should begin now to prepare for these decisions. We need not and should not wait to wrestle with these issues when we come under the confusion and duress of the crisis.
What Is Euthanasia?
“Euthanasia” comes from two Greek words which together mean “good death.” Active euthanasia could be defined as “inducing the death of a person who is undergoing intense suffering, and who has no practical hope of recovery.” Since the expressed motive is usually to release him from his misery, active euthanasia is often called “mercy killing.”
I will define passive euthanasia as “choosing not to provide or to deliberately withdraw life-sustaining equipment, surgery, or medications from a patient, when such action may result in his death.” While active euthanasia is taking a life, passive euthanasia is permitting a death. It does not actually take the life, but allows the person to live or die without extraordinary medical efforts to keep him alive. (By “extraordinary” efforts I refer to medical equipment, surgeries, chemotherapy and other treatments beyond basic food, water, warmth, care and personal attention. After such equipment and efforts are withdrawn, sometimes people live much longer than anticipated, and in rare cases even fully recover.)
Voluntary euthanasia is when the patient requests or agrees to euthanasia. Involuntary euthanasia is when he does not, or cannot. With voluntary euthanasia, the request may be made by the patient at the moment, if he is conscious and coherent. Or, it may have been made by him in advance, either verbally or in the form of a Living Will. The latter normally states that if he is suffering and there is no reasonable hope for recovery, he desires that extraordinary medical care be withheld, and he be allowed to die as painlessly as possible.
Hence, euthanasia is not a simple or single issue, but actually involves four distinct situations: 1) voluntary active euthanasia, 2) involuntary active euthanasia, 3) voluntary passive euthanasia, 4) involuntary passive euthanasia. Each of these, in turn, may involve a number of variables from case to case.
What Does the Bible Say?
Scriptural indications relevant to ethical issues typically fall into three categories—direct commands, examples and principles.
Direct Commands. At first glance there seem to be direct commands against active euthanasia, including “Thou shalt not kill” (Ex. 20:13). However, it is unjustified killing (murder) which is always condemned, not killing per se. Indeed, killing is in some cases permitted, and in other cases directly commanded by God (Gen. 9:5,6; Deut. 16:18-21; 19:15-21).
People are killed in war, self-defense and capital punishment. All murder is wrong, but not all killing is murder. Hence, euthanasia is not wrong simply because it is killing. The whole issue is whether or not it is justified killing. The burden of proof is on those who would say “this particular killing of a human being is justified.” If deliberate killing takes place outside the context of self-defense, the protection of others, a justifiable war or capital punishment of a convicted criminal, convincing biblical evidence must be ushered to prove such a killing is nonetheless right. Otherwise it must be viewed as murder, which is always morally wrong.
Examples: The case of Abimelech, in Judges 9:50-57, might be viewed as a request for euthanasia. Yet Abimelech’s motive for requesting death was not unbearable pain, but his oversized ego in wanting to be sure that his imminent death was not at the hands of a woman. Whether or not it qualifies as a request for a “mercy killing,” the context does not tell us how God viewed it.
1 Samuel 31 gives us a clearer case—a request for euthanasia that is denied, then ends in suicide. A seriously wounded Saul asked his armor bearer to end his life primarily because he didn’t want his enemies to have the satisfaction of torturing and killing him. This was a request for voluntary active euthanasia. Out of a respect for human life in general, or the king’s life in particular, the armor bearer refused to kill Saul. Both committed suicide, a self-inflicted act of voluntary active euthanasia. (The armor bearer thus showed that he viewed taking the life of another as a greater sin than taking one’s own life.)
We are not directly told how God viewed Saul’s request to be killed. However, we are told that an Amalekite claimed to have killed Saul, to relieve him of his great agony (2 Sam. 1:9). Though his claim was false, this was unknown to those who heard him. He was professing to have committed an act of euthanasia. David’s response was to exercise capital punishment on the Amalekite because (if he really did what he claimed) he was guilty of murder. This was despite the fact that his own heathen ethical system led the Amalekite to believe he should be commended rather than condemned. He expected to be rewarded for “mercifully” fulfilling (so he claimed) someone’s request for assisted suicide or voluntary euthanasia.
Though we are not directly told God’s view of the whole issue, it is obvious that active euthanasia was condemned by the Hebrew people. It could be argued that this case is unique because it involved an anointed king, whose life was perhaps put on a different par than that of an average person. Though it does not prove it, this incident does suggest a biblical position against active euthanasia.
Principles. Ultimately, the issue of euthanasia must be decided biblically not examples nor even on direct commands alone, but on principles. Applying these principles can lead us to conclude whether an act of active or passive euthanasia fails to qualify as biblically justifiable, therefore falling into the class of murder which is categorically forbidden by God’s law. The following principles are those which I believe are most relevant to the question of euthanasia. Each must be carefully weighed and satisfied in balance with the others.
1. THE VALUE OF HUMAN LIFE. God is the author of life. He has created all life, maintains all life, and controls all life. Except in instances where God delegates His authority over life to men (e.g. Gen. 9:3,6), the prerogative to take life is God’s and His alone. (Gen. 2:7; Deut. 8:3; 30:20; 32:39; I Sam. 2:6; Job 27:3; Ps. 30:3; 104:30; Ec. 12:7; Is. 38:16; Acts 17:25,28; Rom. 4:17; I Tim. 6:13; James 4:15).
Human life is unique and preeminent in all of God’s creation. Man is made in the image of God, and his life is so valuable in God’s sight that God made the ultimate sacrifice to provide eternal life for man (Gen. 1:27; Jn. 3:14-16).
The “right to die,” battle cry of the euthanasia movement, must be carefully examined to see if its real meaning is the “right to take life”, or the “right to have one’s life taken.” Man’s responsibility, both implicit and explicit throughout Scripture, is to protect and preserve human life, not to take it.
Human life in this world is defined by the union of soul and body (Ec. 12:5,7). This is normally manifested by the continuance of essential bodily functions—when the body stops, the soul departs (Jn. 19:30; Acts 7:59-60). Though this is normative, the abilities of modern medicine to preserve the body make it theoretically possible to maintain physical life indefinitely. Certainly, however, a conscious person capable of assenting to euthanasia is in all cases a living human being, and presumably so is one who though unconscious maintains his bodily functions without artificial aid. Active euthanasia, then, whether voluntary or involuntary, clearly violate God’s sole prerogative of life taking.
Some argue that a long-term comatose or “vegetable” is no longer a human being. The use of dehumanizing terms such as “vegetable” are a product of our thinking, not God’s. Nowhere in Scripture does he encourage us to demean the value of some human beings based on the fact that they can’t communicate or contribute to society. Their value rests not in what they are able to do, but in who they are as created in the image of God.
Hence, the burden of proof always lies with those who claim a living body no longer contains a person. As long as the body continues functioning on its own with only basic care (as opposed to extraordinary medical intervention), we must surely work under the assumption this is indeed still a living being.
What about an anencephalic child, who does not have a full brain? What about a Downs Syndrome baby, or an accident victim who is now a paraplegic, or someone with severe brain damage? Should medical care be withheld from such people, to allow them to die? Should even basic care and provision, including food and water, be withheld to assure death results? A survey of pediatricians and pediatric surgeons reveals that more than two out of three would go along with parents’ wishes to deny life-saving surgery to a child with Downs Syndrome. Nearly three out of four said that if they themselves had a Downs Syndrome child they would choose to let him starve to death. They might consider this passive euthanasia, but surely the deliberate withholding of food, water, warmth and basic human care is but another form of murder. Scripture, after all, recognizes not only sins of commission, but sins of omission (James 4:17).
Before we presume to construct a hierarchy of human value, we must ask, what is God’s opinion of the deformed and handicapped. In his eyes, are their lives—no matter how short or difficult—worth living? God asks, “Who gave man his mouth? Who makes him deaf or dumb? Who gives him sight or makes him blind? Is it not I, the Lord?” (Ex. 4:11). Jesus said that a man was born blind “so that the work of God might be displayed in his life” (Jn. 9:3).
Christ also tells us, “when you give a banquet, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame and blind, and you will be blessed (Lk. 14:13-14). He adds, “Although they cannot repay you, you’ll be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous.” The Lord is saying, “when it comes to the handicapped, ignore the bottom line cost—value them as persons, and take care of them; and know that I’ll reward you for your efforts.”
It has been my privilege to speak to conferences of handicapped people, and out of those conferences to develop long-term relationships with the severely disabled. My own experience has confirmed to me the fact that not only are the handicapped of equal value to other persons, but there is much to be gained in the character-development of any person—and any society—who takes the time and effort to love these people. Those who do will never consider their lives more expendable than that of “normal” healthy people.
2. RESPECT FOR ELDERLY PARENTS. While we are to respect the lives of all people, we are called upon to have a special regard for the lives of our parents. The fifth of the ten commandments is “Honor your father and your mother” (Ex. 20:12). As the first commandment is the most basic of the God-oriented commandments (one through four), so this is the first and most basic of the six man-oriented commandments. Israel was a nomadic people, wandering in the wilderness. It would have been easy to leave behind the elderly and sick—to not “waste” provisions and energy on people who were of no pragmatic value and would soon die anyway. But God warns us to respect and value our parents, despite their age and disabilities. And if we heed the warning, our nation receives a promised blessing of life and prosperity—”that your days may be long in the land.” If we violate the command to honor our parents, we cannot expect national blessing.
The elderly are subject to euthanasia related decisions, which are often made by their grown children. The respect commanded of the young toward the old forbids a utilitarian perspective, in which we weigh the financial, emotional and time-commitment costs of caring. We must reciprocate the care our parents gave us when we were young and helpless by giving them the care they need when they are old and helpless. Jesus specifically condemned those who rationalized or spiritualized their way around giving their parents the honor and care due them (Mt. 15:3-9).
In the New Testament children are reminded that “Honor your father and mother” is the first commandment with a promise, and that their own well-being will be directly affected by how seriously they take their responsibility to respect and care for the previous generation (Eph. 6:1-3).
Just as there is great blessing in honoring parents, there is a severe curse on the person—and the society—that does not. In a day where the abuse of the elderly by family members is increasingly common, we should remember that the physical abuse of parents warranted the death penalty (Ex. 21:15). Not only physical abuse, but verbal abuse was absolutely forbidden. Jesus reminded his listeners that God’s law was “anyone who curses his father or mother must be put to death” (Ex. 21:17; Mt. 15:4). The curse was an expression of contempt. What greater way to show contempt than to expect the elderly, in the words of one state’s governor, to “step out of way” so they will not be a burden to the young.
Proverbs 30:17 is a chilling warning to those who turn from the duty to respect and honor their aging parents: “The eye that mocks a father, that scorns obedience to a mother, will be pecked out by the ravens of the valley, will be eaten by the vultures.”
3. DEATH. Death is the universal experience of mankind (Ec. 3:2; 19:21; Rom. 5:12, 14; I Pet. 1:24). Since taking life is God’s sole prerogative, no man can be certain when he will die (Gen. 27:2; Ps. 39:4, 13). Death is the result of sin (Rom. 3:23), and is mankind’s “last enemy” (I Cor. 15:26). However, the Christian has been freed from the ultimate power and sting of death (Heb. 2:14, 15; I Cor. 15:55-58). Death does not end conscious existence for any person. It is the gateway to heaven for the believer and the gateway to hell for the unbeliever (Lk. 20:34-38; 23:39-43; Rev. 20:12, 13).
Death is an enemy, and should normally be resisted by all reasonable medical means available. Death is not in the best interest of the unbeliever. And though eventual death is in the best interests of the believer, in that it is the doorway to life in heaven, our responsibility to preserve life cannot allow us to willfully impose death. Active euthanasia is clearly a case of man choosing the time of his own death, or that of another. This is an assumption of divine responsibilities, and as such it is playing God, which is a sin (Gen. 3:5; Is. 14:12-15). Ironically, the Christian on the one hand should be the first to acknowledge that life in this world is not to be desperately clung to, yet on the other hand should be the first to preserve and protect human life.
Does God’s prerogative of life-giving and life-taking mean that all passive euthanasia is wrong? No, because passive euthanasia is not taking life, but rather allowing God either to preserve life or take it, as he chooses. Indeed, it appears to me that one might be “playing God” not only by taking life, but by preserving biological existence beyond reason. While God’s sole prerogative over life and death should persuade us to accept the reality of life, it might in other cases persuade us to accept the reality of death.
We are normally obligated to prevent death when possible. This means that extraordinary medical means, such as a respirator, are not only a legitimate but commendable initial recourse. Passive euthanasia allowed so early as to not give the patient a fair chance for recovery would seem to be ethically wrong. This is especially true when one realizes the tremendous recuperative powers of the human body when extraordinary means can be used to buy time for such a turnaround.
But what about the prolonged maintenance of a person’s life by artificial means, when there is no indication of possible recovery? This might be infringing upon God’s prerogative to enact natural death. It may actually be delaying a glorious and liberating entrance to the presence of God. To do this and to encumber his family with continual emotional pressure—and in some cases crippling medical expenses—seems doubly unfair. On the one hand, pragmatic considerations seem inappropriate when discussing whether a life should be prolonged. On the other hand, a Christian considering a heart transplant, for example, might legitimately weigh the degree of suffering it might involve for himself and his family, as well as the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars that could be used to save many other lives rather than briefly prolong his own. I have seen a Christian family’s ongoing ordeal related to a heart transplant and the extraordinary expense of energy and resources required to fight the body’s continuous rejection of the new organ. Having seen the patient’s physical deterioration and emotional depression, and the toll taken on every member of the family, I cannot help but wonder if it would have been better to allow God to take this Christian to his eternal home if and when his own heart finally failed. While it is not for me to judge, if it were my life I would feel obligated to weigh these factors—even if they are somewhat pragmatic—in my decision.
Is it possible that when a heart can no longer be fixed by any surgery, and the only way to sustain life literally requires harvesting the heart of another human being, it is an indication that God intends this life to end? Is it not virtually certain that the practice of organ transplants will lend itself to serious moral abuse? (People waiting on transplant lists have offered large sums of money to get hold of vital human organs faster, creating a market for body parts and an incentive for physicians to make premature declarations of death.)
Even apart from the social issues involved in vital organ transplants, could they amount to an attempt to extend life beyond the point God has intended it to be extended? Fixing or removing a defective organ seems reasonable. But should we not consider the possibility that God intends us both to live—and to die--with the heart he originally fashioned for us, rather than for another? If medical science continues to advance to the point that bodies with artificial or continuously transplanted organs can be kept alive indefinitely, will every Christian be obligated to cling to this life by taking advantage of every new technology, regardless of the toll it takes on himself, others and limited human resources?
Life is not always fair, and what appears to be more fair is not always more right. We must be careful that the family’s emotional duress and financial drain do not become the deter-mining factors in decision-making, since the moral issue centers on the Creator and the person dying—not on the family. Heartbreaking though it may be, God is capable of building the character and faith of family members through the long lingering illness of their loved ones. Often unconditional love is learned in this very process.
When my own mother (who was also one of my closest friends) was dying of cancer, she was bedridden and in considerable pain. The doctor told us that though her situation was ultimately hopeless, he could perform a surgery that might buy her another six months of life. The surgery would not relieve her pain, and would most likely create more. It would not improve her ability to function physically or mentally.
My mother was not coherent enough to make the decision, but the right course of action was clear. She was ready to meet the Lord. It seemed cruel to buy her maybe six months more of a painful existence here, rather than allowing her to enter into the joy of God’s presence, if indeed that was his choice. (We were not taking her life—God was still free to improve her condition if he so chose.)
The case of an unsaved person under prolonged extraordinary care is more difficult. Does one consider passive euthanasia as readily for the unbeliever as the believer, even though death will mean his departure to an eternal hell? Are we to have two positions on passive euthanasia, one for the saved and one for the unsaved? These are questions that to me have neither obvious nor easy answers.
4. PAIN AND PAIN RELIEF. Human suffering is ultimately, though often not immediately, a consequence of sin (Gen. 3:16-19). It is the experience of all, in different degrees, including believers (I Thess. 3:3, II Tim. 3:12). Though pain per se is not ordained by God, he implements it (Ps. 66:11; Amos 3:6), regulates it (Ps. 80:5; Is. 9:1; Jer. 46:28), and determines its duration (Num. 14:33; Is. 10:25). God uses suffering for good, especially in the life of the believer (Rom. 8:28; I Pet. 1:6, 7). However, it is both natural and morally positive to prevent and relieve pain whenever possible (e.g. I Tim. 5:23).
Medical science strives to relieve pain, and this is good. In view of the principles we have examined regarding God’s sovereignty over life and death, however, the relief of pain could never justify actively taking a human life. It is admittedly ironic that we would put an animal in a hopeless condition out of its misery, motivated by compassion, yet are not free to do the same to a human being. But man is made in the image of God. Though God has granted us such rights over animals, he has not done so in the case of human beings.
Certainly, medicine should be freely used to alleviate the pain of a dying person. It would not seem ethical to me to allow great suffering by refusing to administer the most effective medications, even if this refusal might prolong conscious life.
What about an emergency where drugs are not available and a person is in great suffering? There are certainly means short of killing to relieve suffering, even if it requires knocking the person unconscious. Furthermore, the body has a natural threshold of pain, which normally brings on unconsciousness when suffering is great. Realizing this should not deter us, of course, from finding quicker ways—short of taking the life—to alleviate suffering.
Sometimes withdrawing machinery to allow passive euthanasia in a hopeless case would result in gradual and painful death (the person may be too far gone to feel pain, but this may not be certain). Is it right, for instance, to remove a respirator if the result may be suffocation? If after some time has passed, passive euthanasia seems the wisest recourse, surely we are morally obligated to use all available means to prevent pain from occurring, except those which themselves would directly result in death.
5. COMPASSION AND MERCY. It should go without saying that we are to exercise mercy in every way possible (Prov. 3:3; Hos. 12:6; Mic. 6:8; Mt. 9:13; 12:7; Lk. 6:36; Col. 3:12, 13). However, mercy is sanctified mercy only within the context of that which is declared by God to be right and permissible. We must not simply act on our subjective feelings of what seems merciful and what doesn’t. If active euthanasia is wrong because it infringes on clear biblical principles, then it cannot legitimately be committed in the name of “mercy.” God, who is infinitely more merciful than we, is surely the best judge of what is genuinely merciful and what is not!
We must also be careful not to rationalize “it’s in the best interests of the elderly and disabled that we help them die with dignity.” Whenever one person becomes actively involved in the death of another, the potential for abuse and self-interest is unlimited. The specter of legal euthanasia creates frightening scenarios across society. A son who has counted on a large inheritance sees it being “wasted” on care for his terminal mother. A daughter who has a job and family and a full life of her own does not want the burden of caring for an elderly and cantankerous father. So, even as parents now justify abortion because “it’s really in the child’s best interests,” euthanasia can be justified as “they should be allowed to die with dignity” when the truth is “we don’t want to make the sacrifices of giving them the loving care they need.”
We must face the reality that sometimes it is not so much that we want to spare them suffering as to spare us suffering. We do not want to make the lifestyle changes that involve sacrifice to care for another. Yet, God may well have allowed their suffering partly to involve us in their care, to mold our character, teach us about himself, and make us more loving and Christlike as we minister to them.
True mercy is God-centered and others-centered, not self-centered. The principles of Christian mercy, both for patients and their families and friends, will in some cases demand that we seriously consider allowing a “mercy death,” but not that we perpetrate a “mercy killing.”
6. DIVINE SOVEREIGNTY AND INTERVENTION. God is free and able to intervene in the course of natural events, and sometimes he chooses to do so. He can heal those about to sink into death (Jn. 4:46-54; Mt. 8:14-17), and can even raise people from the dead (Lk. 7:11-16; Jn. 11:1-46). Sometimes he directly answers the prayers of his people for the miraculous healing of a dying loved one (James 5:14-15).
It seems to me that under normal circumstances any available medical means should be immediately employed to preserve the life of a patient. Prayers should be offered, and God should be waited upon to act, if he chooses to do so. (Most of us have heard amazing stories of the recovery of severely injured and comatose people, for whom doctors had no hope).
When adequate time for natural recovery and divine intervention has passed, however, if the extent of the mental and physical damage is hopelessly acute, I believe the possibility of passive euthanasia should be considered. No one can legislate what “adequate time” is, and it might differ from case to case. But we are not necessarily violating Scripture in allowing death to take place by withdrawing medical machinery, so long as we do not actively cause death, or withhold food, water or other basic care and provision.
Withdrawing medical equipment does not insure death, it simply gives the situation over to God. If he desires that the person’s life continues without artificial aid (as is sometimes the case even when equipment is withdrawn), then we must go no further. We have fulfilled our responsibility as best we know how. God must do the rest. In doing our part we must use the utmost caution, but when such a time comes God will give grace and direction to His beloved children (I Cor. 10:13).
“But can’t God stop a machine from working if he wants to?” Some ask this question with the thought that we should always keep a person on life-sustaining machinery regardless of the circumstances or time element involved. After all, won’t God simply override the machinery if he so wishes? While God certainly can do this, he may not and we are still left with a moral choice.
It is equally true that God can prevent any moral choice from its consequences, such as stopping a bullet from leaving a gun, or keeping a person from harm who jumps off a building. But the fact that God can override inventions (e.g. a respirator) does not mean he will do so. The truth of God’s sovereignty does not free us from having to exercise our responsibility in making careful moral choices.
Active euthanasia is inducing or assisting in the death of a suffering or incapacitated person. Passive euthanasia is withholding life-saving equipment or treatment. Both can be done either voluntarily, by the wishes of the patient, or involuntary, when the patient does not or cannot express his wishes. Active euthanasia takes a life. Passive euthanasia allows a death.
As Creator and Sovereign, God alone has the ultimate prerogative of giving and taking human life. The worth of each human being is determined not by mental or physical capacities, or tangible contribution to society, but by its intrinsic God-given nature, the fact it is created by him and in his image. Active euthanasia usurps God’s sole prerogative over human life. In its voluntary form it is suicide, in its involuntary form it is murder.
The Bible teaches honor and respect for the elderly and self-sacrificing care for the weak and needy. This would forbid any form of passive euthanasia that involves neglect, and the withholding of basic human care, such as food and water. (God holds us responsible not only for acts of commission, but omission.)
Provided basic care is provided, there is a place to evaluate whether extraordinary equipment or treatment should be undertaken in terminal cases. There is not always a moral obligation to use every possible means of medicine and technology to prolong a life that is naturally nearing its end. Such a decision is ideally made in concert by patient, family, doctors and spiritual advisors. When the patient is unable to be involved in such decisions, the potential for abuse naturally increases. “The right to die” easily becomes the right to kill. Soon the weak, sick and elderly are living in fear that they will be the next victims of “mercy killing.”
Doctors are to be healers, not killers. Physician involvement in directly terminating lives or withdrawing basic care will callous hearts and cloud judgments, stifle pain-relieving research and efforts, and erode doctor/patient trust.
The determination of what acts are “merciful” must not be left to the subjective feelings of individuals under the duress of crisis. True acts of mercy must fall within the parameters of the principles of Scripture. Our merciful God forbids actively taking human life, and withholding basic care--hence, while either alternative may be easier, neither is truly merciful.
My personal conclusion as to the ethics of euthanasia can be summarized as follows:
1. Active euthanasia in all its forms is wrong because it usurps God’s exclusive prerogative over human life and death.
2. Passive euthanasia—allowing death under certain circumstances—does not necessarily violate any biblical principles per se, except when it involves the withholding of basic human care, such as food and water, and/or if it promotes suffering. Since it calls upon God to do as he pleases, in certain cases what is called “passive euthanasia” may be a decision of faith and trust in God that is more appropriate than an unceasing use of extraordinary means to hold on to physical life beyond reasonable hope and purpose.
On the other hand, I do not believe passive euthanasia is always right—even when it does not involve withdrawing basic care. It seems reasonable that it should only be considered after some period of waiting upon God for his intervention. Those making such decisions must also weigh their hearts and motives. Are we acting faithfully before the Lord and in the best interests of the loved one, or are we motivated more by sparing ourselves the emotional or financial burden of a prolonged ordeal? (This is not to say consideration for self is automatically sinful, but simply that it must not be the central concern or deciding factor when it comes to matters where human life is at stake.)
The Christian position on passive euthanasia should be a balanced one, and the biblical principles must be carefully and prayerfully weighed and applied in each individual situation. We must always consider whether in a given case we might be allowing a death, or actually assisting in one. If it is the latter we must not participate even if our subjective sense of mercy would lead us to do so.
I must add a personal note, regarding an experience I had after I’d already written this paper.
My 84-year-old father, who was not a Christian, began thinking about the possibility of suicide in 1991. He had been resistant to my every attempt to share the gospel with him, and when I’d written him a letter detailing the biblical plan of salvation he had been offended. A proud and independent man, he was facing in old age increasing mental and physical difficulties. He had formerly found significance in years of hard work, which he was no longer able to do. He was experiencing the ravages and indignities of old age.
My father had read with interest and approval the accounts of Dr. Kevorkian and his suicide machine, which several sick or elderly people had used to take their lives. He posted on his walls various clips about death with dignity. He told me he wished suicide machines would become legal, and that doctors could fulfill people’s requests for life-ending drugs. In fact, I later discovered that he had actually approached several physicians, asking them if they could give him a pill or some other “clean and effective” means to painlessly take his life. A few were sympathetic, but would not violate the law to “help” him in this way.
As a resident of Washington State, Dad had high hopes that the November 1991 ballot measure legalizing physician-assisted euthanasia would succeed. It came very close, but did not pass. My Dad was disappointed, because he was ready to take advantage of that law the moment it was put into effect.
Though I did not know the extent of his plans, on the one occasion where he spoke of suicide with me, I shared with Dad some of the same principles of Scripture in this paper. I reaffirmed to him my love and my family’s, and expressed a willingness to help him in any way that conformed to God’s principles. Because he did not know Christ, and had been exposed to pro-euthanasia literature and television movies, the biblical principles prohibiting active euthanasia didn’t seem to make sense to him.
Six weeks ago as I write this postscript, my father called to say “Goodbye.” Two days earlier he had been diagnosed with prostate cancer. A surgery was scheduled, but that day he was unable to urinate, and was convinced he was going to die a painful death. When he called me, he had a loaded gun, and was about to end his life. I begged him to hold on while I made the thirty minute drive to his house. After running a few red lights I pulled up to his house, jumped out and knocked on the door. No answer. I opened it. On the floor were two guns. My heart raced. I called “Dad, Dad,” but there was no answer. Holding my breath I walked into the other room. There he was—disoriented but still alive.
I called the doctor, and he had us meet him at the hospital. He relieved my father’s immediate problem with a catheter, and scheduled surgery for the next morning. Though my father had resisted me every time I’d shared the gospel with him over the years, in his desperation he now listened. I read Scripture and prayed.
The next morning before he went into surgery, I walked my Dad through the gospel one more time. Knowing full well the answer, I asked him, “Dad, have you ever confessed your sins to God and accepted Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior?” He said, “No, I haven’t,” then after a pause, added “but I think it’s about time I did.” I had the joy of hearing my 84 year old father pray aloud, confess his sins and give his life to Christ.
The issue of passive euthanasia became very personal to me ten years ago as my Mom was dying. The issue of active euthanasia has now become very personal to me because of my Dad. If a single one of those doctors had “helped” my father when in his desperation he asked them to, or if the state of Washington would have passed that law which was narrowly defeated, without a doubt my father would have taken his life. And in doing so he would have gone into a Christless eternity. So much for “mercy killing.”
1995 Postscript: My father now lives in a retirement center near our home where I visit him regularly. He has grown in Christ and is doing amazingly well for a man of 87, and apart from some aches now and then, has no pain (four years after the doctor said he was terminal and maybe had six months to live). Several times my father has told me “I’m so glad I didn’t take my life.” If not for the diligent efforts of some people in Washington to defeat the “Death with Dignity” bill in 1991, I shudder to think what would have happened to him. (Oregon’s 1994 “Physician Assisted Suicide Bill” was essentially the same thing, and it passed, but has not yet been implemented due to a challenge to its constitutionality.)
If people who are desperate, hurting and confused can go to others in their weakest moment, and obtain drugs or equipment that make it convenient to take their own lives, many will do just that. But if they are receiving the support they need to make it through, many of the same people who don’t legally have an assisted suicide recourse will join my father in saying, “I’m so glad I didn’t.” The Bible makes it clear God is also glad.