Euthanasia: A Good Death?
By Carol Marshall
euthanasia. (fr. Gr. euthanasia, fr. eu well + thanatos death) Mode or act of
reducing death painlessly or as a relief from pain.
A good death. Many of us have experienced this vicariously as a loved one or acquaintance has peacefully passed from this earthly life into the arms of El Shaddai. But death can also be messy and unwelcome, a grand insult to the human creation which bears the imago Dei.
We call death a natural process, yet some fight against it with tooth and nail, attempting to preserve this encasement of the soul at great cost. Cryogenics, the preservation of the body through freezing for future ‘use,’ was once thought of as bizarre science fiction, but today may be a serious consideration for those who are so inclined and can afford it. Discussions of end of life issues abound in ethics classes, in political arenas and even at the family dinner table while Grandpa is suffering through chemotherapy in what seems to be an endless battle against the grim but inevitable ‘Reaper.’
What then is a good death? The answer may lie in defining what is a good life. The truth according to Scripture is that humans exist in the context of the world God has created and we are subject to Him as creatures. In this light our questions change. Once again, humanity is not to be the center of the discussion, but rather, God is. He is the fulcrum upon which all of our thoughts must balance. So then, what does it mean to live and die rightly according to God’s way?
Genesis 1 tells us that humanity was the very good creation of God, made according to His likeness (Genesis 1:26). God blessed humans and charged them to be fruitful, to multiply and to rule over the rest of the creation. It’s this ‘ruling’ part that can be confusing at times for our ethical discussions. At what point does humanity lose its perspective as a creature carrying out the call of God and move into the role of presumptive creator? The words ‘author of your own destiny’ are not unfamiliar ones in our society. We are encouraged to take charge of our life…and now of our death. Just as we all want a good life, we would all prefer a good death.
In our lexicon the word euthanasia has the connotation of an active participation in bringing on the death of a person. It does not simply imply a peaceful home-going, but an intentional action made to precipitate death. I resent this use of the word and would, in fact, challenge it as dangerously euphemistic.
We have to question by whose determination a life is to be exterminated by such actions and who the beneficiaries might be. I am not reticent to insert the slippery slope argument here. If, under a Utilitarian Theory of Ethics an individual is no longer able to lead what others may see as a meaningful or productive life, where is the line of demarcation in deciding to end that person’s life? Is it ever appropriate to kill someone who just seems to have outlived his or her usefulness? Do we ever outlive our humanity?
Grab your sleds, we’re on our way down!
The example of euthanasia in The Netherlands has set many red flags waving over this issue. While for years the practice was not technically legal, there was a tacit understanding that patients could instruct their physicians to end their lives. Prosecution was virtually non-existent in these cases and finally the courts legalized euthanasia in 2001.
The list of people who can be euthanized includes non-residents, incompetent adults who have given prior agreement, teenagers aged 16-18 (not necessarily with parental consent) and children between the ages of 12 and 16 when parental consent is granted. (source: www.euthanasia.com)
It is not hard to see where this leads. In a Dutch government study, of an estimated 130,000 annual deaths, 20% of these involved euthanasia and of that number 58% involved involuntary euthanasia! (source: www.lifeissues.org article, “Euthanasia: A Real Threat to Americans by Bradley Mattes)
Death becomes an option which formerly would not be considered. It may sidestep psychiatric evaluation and help. One of the key moral arguments in favor of euthanasia as a choice is “autonomy.” This states that an individual should have final say as to whether he wants to continue to live based on his personal evaluation of his situation. But, how can we be sure that a suffering patient’s decision to die is truly autonomous? What about the cases where a physician suggests euthanasia as an option to the patient? That individual may feel pressure to take the “convenient” way out and relieve society of the burden of his incapacitated life. “The least costly treatment for any illness is lethal medication.” These chilling words come from a transcript of oral arguments in the U.S. Supreme Court case Washington vs. Glucksberg. (source: www.InternationalTaskForce.org)
The other argument in favor of euthanasia is to relieve unbearable pain. The Dutch example indicates that for those who request euthanasia for reasons of physical pain most change their minds when that pain is controlled. (source: www.lifeissues.org article by Susan W. Enoven “Oregon’s Euthanasia Law: It’s About Far More Than the Number of People Dying) The fact is, with the improvement in palliative care and medicine for pain control patients do not need to suffer with intolerable pain. The hospice movement has taught us much about care in end of life situations and is making a difference in the lives of the dying persons and their family and loved ones.
The 2004 movie Million Dollar Baby tracks the story of a female boxer Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) who is mentored by a washed-up boxing trainer, Frankie Dunn (Clint Eastwood). After fantastic “underdog” successes Maggie eventually suffers debilitating injuries from a match. She is paralyzed from the neck down and sees no hope for a future of any value. Reflecting on a childhood memory Maggie tells Frank about the time that her father shot a dog, Axel, to put it out of its misery. The screenwriter effectively takes the viewer back to that day and the father becomes a hero of sorts. In a blurring of the distinctions between humans and animals, Maggie asks Frank to do for her what her father did for Axel. This naturalistic thinking, that humans are merely highly evolved forms of the animal kingdom, completely negates what we know of the imago Dei as previously cited from Genesis 1.
When the movie Million Dollar Baby came out, disability rights activists were up in arms at the implication that death is better than disability (source: www.lifenews.com Feb. 3, 2005). The example of Joni Eareckson Tada easily refutes such despicable notions. Joni has been a wonderful example to the world of the significance and usefulness of every life as it is yielded to its Creator. Her own life as well as her ministry Joni and Friends provide countless examples for us to admire and be encouraged by.
The value of a human life cannot be diminished to an evaluation of usefulness or to present perceptions of pain or mental state. These things fly in the face of the higher values articulated in Scripture such as honoring God and other humans by demonstrating love and service, compassion and sacrifice. Next we will consider how God can work through end of life situations to draw people to Himself.
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Carol Marshall is a Bible teacher, writer and singer living in the Chicago area. She directs the Women’s Discipling Ministries at the Village Church of Barrington and is also a graduate student of theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL. Carol and her husband Peter have three grown children. To contact Carol you may e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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