It is (or was) winter in Windsor, Ontario and I’m reminded of the beauty of the cold season, as fleeting as it is in this area of Canada. I love the way the whiteness of snow covers up the tragic pavement of the city and reflects the luminosity of streetlights. I love how one can find an open patch of ice and skate on it (add a puck and a stick and you’ve found bliss). It’s a beautiful season few appreciate, but it is well known as a dead season, a time in the Earth’s cycle where things die and hibernate and growth ceases. Winter is known as a time of sleep and darkness from shorter days. The darkness and deathly reality of this time brings into present thought that it was not too long ago, last winter, on February 6th, 2015, that the Canadian Supreme Court removed its ban on Physician Assisted Suicide (PAS) nationwide and so yielded to what’s been termed the culture of death .
Next to abortion, euthanasia is arguably the bioethical debate of our time. Its popularity is booming. It’s gaining momentum in the headlines. The topic of assisted dying recently received limelight thanks to the emotional conundrum of one Brittany Maynard in the weeks and months preceding her willed death on November 1st, 2014. Some may even remember Dr. Jack Kevorkian. Fresh fires have since sprung from curious minds with diverse opinions ablaze. I’ve now had to ask myself what my stand is on this issue. Pushed by tall figures, past and present, I’m unable to idly observe.
No matter which religious or philosophical perspective one takes, one should recognize that euthanasia is already taking its toll on lives. Its partial legality in the US, from the Death with Dignity acts in certain states, has led to hundreds of deaths . In 2013 in Belgium, 1800 people died through right-to-die laws (it’s now legal there for terminally ill children and barely restricted to mentally ill adults) . Over 4000 people opted out in 2013 in the Netherlands alone . The numbers globally, and nearer to home, are stacking. If there is a right or wrong on the matter of euthanasia, it is imperative that today’s culture becomes informed and reformed.
Formation of My Anti-Death Thoughts
I, a Christian, believe in the absolute goodness of God – the Moral Argument and the witness of Biblical scripture testify to this – which leads me to some basic but important conclusions. From the belief in God, I believe that there is an absolute, objective morality which exists independently of human will. I also believe that the Judeo-Christian God exists as the referential standard for this morality. Therefore, God decides the rightness of action, not us. Hence, no matter the emotional pull there is towards any position, pro-life or pro-choice, there is a right position which we do not determine but can accept as truth and act out upon (which would be the loving thing to do). Jesus Christ himself was about love and loving others, but asserted that love is predicated on truth and must, by definition, act from truth. We must, as Christ’s followers, remain attentive to the suffering of others while staying consistent with what is true. This calls for theological assertion with similar diligence as one’s empathetic remorse.
To be clear, no easy response to the issue of euthanasia comes to mind. For the Christian, I feel the best place to start is to remind oneself of the Biblical conception of humanity, truths regarding pain, and accepted doctrine relating to life’s purpose. Following this train of thought, one can then proceed into a more philosophical discussion to appeal to the non-religious audience. Delving into each subject, I believe one will come to the realization, as I have, that euthanasia is absolutely immoral and should be criticized in public forums.
We, Christians, understand that human value, Biblically speaking, is intrinsic. It’s not variable. It’s constant. It’s not dependent on the material summation of the person or the net worth of their assets or the subjective quality of their experience. Human value doesn’t shift with the fluctuation of happiness over the time-measure of life and it doesn’t change with the aggregate merit of the person’s actions. Human value is equated quite simply (and beautifully) with human existence. This is understood when one reads Genesis 1:26-27, Psalm 139:13-14, Matthew 6:25-34, 1 Corinthians 3:16-17 and Ephesians 2:8-9. If we look over such passages of scripture, we read that we are “made in God’s image” (imago Dei), we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” and that God’s affection for his people is not a conditional one. We matter to Him regardless of circumstance or our behavior. Furthermore, we read a passage like Romans 8 which boasts such powerful clarity in terms of God’s faithfulness to the individual. Paul, the author of this letter, in the text, considers all possible setbacks a person can experience—loss, pain and even death. His conclusion is that nothing can separate us from God’s love. Regardless of these things, hope remains. If we look further into Paul’s teaching, as in his letters to the Philippians and Timothy, he continually exhorts the Church at large as well as the Christian individual to persist in faith through life no matter which battle may arise.
If euthanasia, and PAS by extension, be defined as the killing of a person with motive to end the person’s suffering, then euthanasia is unjustified according to scripture. For suffering is to be expected as a necessary, albeit temporary, aspect of life in today’s age until the return of Christ. Recognizing that pain, from a Christian worldview, does not tarnish the value of the person’s life nor rob them of their purpose, there really can’t be a logically coherent, conscientious scriptural defense of euthanasia.
Now taking another approach to the problem, if we examine the topic from a philosophical perspective, proponents of right-to-die laws, or so-called “Death with Dignity”, are still with questions to answer.
There is foremost the concern over the subjective, relativistic underpinning for pro-euthanasia arguments. Take as an example the argument that a person suffers so much pain that to prolong their life would be undignified; therefore “mercy killing” would be the morally good action. The chronological variant of this argument is that the death of the person is so likely and so near that it would be better to die sooner than to prolong the life in vain, or to at least give this option to the dying person. In response to these statements, I ask, How much pain is required to justify “mercy killing”? What type of pain? At what stage in a person’s life? How imminent and probable must the person’s death be? Questions like these uncover the obvious truth that pain is a spectrum, as is time with respect to death, which makes it quite difficult (rather impossible) to objectively draw a moral line in the sand – How much pain is too much? At what time is suicide appropriate? What it really comes down to is granting people the permission and the means to take their own life, or the life of another, because we want to out of pity. This is called a slippery slope, and the effects of such are already being seen in places like Belgium where people have sought PAS on the basis of depression and mental illness, alone, and not just suffering from physical disease. It’s hard to see what will stop a nation, if they grant PAS to any, from granting PAS to all as a basic human right. It’s then even harder to see right-to-die laws as anything but a Trojan horse erupting from within an army of pathos-injected, bad arguments to the death of many.
Other defenses tend to rely heavily on utilitarian terms. For example, allowing PAS as an option may save on expenses required to futilely keep the patient alive. These types of arguments not only disturb me but only self-evidence the absurdity of utilitarianism as a moral philosophy. Can values of good and evil be reduced to actuarial science or mere economics? Can they be founded purely on a naturalistic worldview? If one worshipped the individual, perhaps, or rather the individual’s happiness. (But what or who made happiness the objective pinnacle of existence?) Sure, one can extrapolate the Happiness Principle to the concept of the collective good by maximizing happiness and minimizing suffering for all, but the problematic questions for the utilitarian persist. To me, the utilitarian defenses convey an entirely shallow if not a vacuous understanding of goodness and can offer no true meaning to the suffering individual other than to rid themselves of the illusion of meaning. If good and evil be a scoreboard hanging over the head of the human race, then it becomes clear that morality is but a sport whose rules are mind-dependent, variable, and ironically incalculable.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone, then, when I say that ‘dignity’, from a secular utilitarian perspective, is a paradoxical and confusing notion. However, it comes up again and again in the debates I’ve seen, heard and participated in (look again at the argument I begin with two paragraphs up). If God isn’t real (or if we simply just remove God from consideration) in the moral conversation, then the conversation becomes subjective. If no objective morality exists, then, it follows that no true definition of good and evil exists. How then do we define dignity? The dictionary defines dignity as worthy of respect and honor, but what is respectable and honorable in an amoral, or subjectively moral, world? So the question of dignity is without answer and the argument from dignity meaningless. The irony of it all is that to argue that dying in suffering is undignified (pro-euthanasia) is to assert that, yes, there is such a thing as dignity which is to assert there is a real moral fabric to our existence. One can only come to this conclusion within a theistic framework and it’s this framework which argues that human dignity is not in a painless existence but in an existence alone.
With all of this being said, it is still very much important to remember that those who suffer immensely and approach death are not lost in God’s peripheral. Sometimes an argument against euthanasia can seem like dooming the individual to a cold, lonely termination where God just stands by and watches the unfolding, like a Cosmic Sadist (read C.S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed). The truth is that the experience of suffering is not reducible to abstractions. Where mere theological thought and tangible providence meet is in the Gospel according to the Christian faith. Only in the Gospel can a true remedy for meaninglessness and joylessness be found. If one be a Christian, the effectiveness and love of one’s assertions hinges on whether it all can be brought back to the sufficient provision of Christ in his death and resurrection. To know that a God would suffer for one as absolution for sin, propitiation for God’s wrath is to have a hope that endures pain and death. The Gospel is the knowledge of having life purposefully and eternally.
The reasons for opposing the pro-euthanasia movement seem fairly evident to me. My hope isn’t to bring further pain to those nearing death or having had an experience with euthanasia. The intention of this argument is to convey what I believe to be a relevant truth, unpopular and scarcely considered, that it may prevent further loss of life, meaning and hope.
Declaration On Euthanasia And Assisted Suicide: http://www.euthanasiadeclaration.ca/declaration/