What are your thoughts on euthanasia?

This is my first round teaching an ethics class at the school that I work at. I’m enjoying the learning process as one who has been given a curriculum to implement. The more I dig into the textbook the more I find that I am growing in my understanding of ethics.

The issue of euthanasia is one that Christ followers must not be quiet about. Interestingly, I am not teaching a class from a religious perspective but from a philosophical one. Therefore, it gets a bit more difficult to come to my conclusions in a way that only utilizes experience and reason. Even so, we are constantly reminding ourselves in class that religious persuasions, whatever a specific tradition may or may not be, always influence our approach to ethical issues, even if we try and remove such from the equation.

Euthanasia then, is an issue with much relevance to modern society. Most people remember Dr. Jack Kevorkian. He is credited with assisting 100 suicides. He was charged of three of these, but was found not guilty in a court of law each time. The reason the jury could not render a guilty verdict was that he was simply providing the “means” for someone to choose to kill themselves, but was not actually doing any of the actions himself. He eventually was convicted of second-degree murder when he actually placed the IV in one of his patients who wanted to die. This patient was videotaped, and was suffering from a terminal disease.

The case of Dr. Jack Kevorkian is called “active euthanasia” as opposed to what some would call “passive euthanasia.” “Active” means that elements are being added to the equation to allow for the termination of life. “Passive” means withholding things that would preserve life. An example of passive euthanasia might be a terminally ill patient who refuses various available measures to fight off the disease. And yes, I realize that I am being very narrow and simplified with these terms.

There is much more that we could talk about when referencing euthanasia in modern culture. Several court cases have upheld various forms of active euthanasia in this country. And to my knowledge, the state of Oregon has laws in place that allow for certain forms of this practice (Forgive me if I am wrong here, please let me know the relevant info). Ultimately, we have encountered both of Dr. Jack Kevorkian and Terry Schrivo’s cases in popular culture which push us emotionally to discern the ethics of this practice and its morality.

To be clear: I am prolife. I believe that life begins in the womb and that life ought to be preserved from the womb until the two. Certainly I also can see areas of gray that we must not dance around. So this is why I bring this issue to you.

What is the role of Christians in the euthanasia discussion? Can we be pro-life and also see certain cases as having gray areas? What are your personal experiences with the issue of euthanasia? What other thoughts do you have on this issue?

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  • Lucyelizabethbarber

    As a nurse, I think that sometimes people are suffering so much at the end of their lives that to continue to prolong their lives is very cruel. And i think that actively prolonging someone’s pain and suffering when there is no hope for a cure or quality of life (according to the patient) is as bad as purposfully withholding a life-saving cure or cutting someone’s life short maliciously. I think there’s a gray area of comfort care/hospice versus passive euthanasia and i am very much in support of hospice when’s its appropriate.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

      Great thoughts Lucy!

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    • AmyS

      Agreed, Lucy. This subject is something that people tend to have a lot of opinions about until they face it themselves. You see it all the time at work. I’ve seen it many times with family members and friends. The lines are never really clear. At what point does compassionate care hasten death? At what point do life-sustaining interventions simply prolong dying? 

      And, yes, compassionate palliative care is a good and ethical way to apply medical science. 

  • Trevor

    I think something important to keep in mind is that, up until the advent of modern medicine about a hundred or so years ago, people died not long after they contracted a disease/found a tumor/had an organ fail on them. It is only in the past century or so that we have been able to extend life perhaps…unnaturally, leading to situations where people end up enduring their last days (or years, rather) in suffering/partial consciousness/total disability. Whereas for the vast majority of human history, once you got some terrible disease/had an accident, you died and were spared having to “live” on life support in a hospital bed. Euthanasia, or at least passive euthanasia, is truly an ethics problem of the modern age.
    P.S. I don’t understand this sentence in the final paragraph: “I believe that life begins in the womb and that life pot [ought?] to be preserved from the womb until the two [???].”

    • Wright

      “Tomb”?

  • Aaron Brown

    This is a great topic that more Christians need to think about.

    Its easiest to comment on a situation where one has not had an experiential encounter with a loved one who has desired to die due to the extreme amounts of pain that not even the highest doses of morphine can address.
    However, I will ask this, “Has the individual who wants to end their life sought God’s will in the situation?”

    Does the individual feel at peace with the idea of ending their lives or do they sense that despite the pain, God has called them to endure for a little while longer?

    I have a friend who always asks the question, “Where is the Holy Spirit in this?”

    Though I do not ascribe to the traditional belief that suicide is a mortal sin and an automatic go to hell move, I do believe it is important to ask the question as to whether or not God is finished with us just yet.

  • Trevor

    To expand on my previous comment, I think the ethical dilemma here is whether it’s moral to
    1. extend/preserve life at all costs even if it increases suffering OR
    2. allow life to end naturally in order to end suffering
    I’m not sure what to make of it at this point in my life, to be honest. :/

  • http://blog.rrchapman.us/ Bob Chapman

    Christians must be careful not to play god. Life ends. Death is a part of life. To try to change that is to try to play god, which humans are particulary poor at doing.

    At the same time, Christians are directed to do no murder.

    In the vast majority of cases, pain control is possible. I have been assured this by an expert in the field. This doctor wishes other doctors would consult him earlier to manage patient pain.

    At the same time, using some pain medications in a way that removes pain can shorten life.

    So often we forget the legal concept of “intent.” The difference between manslaughter and first degree murder is intent. Homicide can be justifiable under some circumstances.

    What is your intent?

    If your intent is to relieve pain even though you may shorten the life, you are being loving. If your intent is to shorten the life even if it puts someone out of misery, you are taking a life.

    Now if we could always be clear in what our intent is to ourselves.

    • http://patheos.com/blogs/thepangeablog/ Kurt Willems

       Very interesting insights here @rrchapman:disqus . I think that your thoughts on intent are quite valuable.

      • AmyS

        So meta, Kurt.

    • AmyS

      You might be on to something here, Bob, with the notion of intent being crucial. But, the example of criminal conviction hanging upon intent is an argument in reverse. In order to compare your two examples (manslaughter and “euthanasia”), we must view them in the same temporal terms: either reviewing consequences of past events and decisions OR predicting consequences and forming decisions. 

      That is, in a court case the death has already taken place, and the question is “did the killer intend to kill?” If the killer did not intend to kill, then the killing can be understood as accidental. It’s an unforeseen consequence of a behavior that the killer elected without regard for whether or not that behavior would end a life. But, if death is a foreseeable and expectable (even inevitable) consequence of a certain behavior, how does one decide whether or not to enact such a behavior?In the first case (manslaughter), death was an unintended and unforeseen consequence, which has already taken place. The death was an accident. There was no intent to kill, and it cannot be determined whether or not the killer would have taken the same action if he/she had known that the death would occur.

      In the second case (“euthanasia”/palliative sedation), death is an undesirable but expected consequence of an action which is yet to be chosen. If palliative sedation is chosen, death is expected as a matter of course (even if not the primary goal of the action). It cannot be said that the death is an unintended consequence, but a secondary one. And, if an action is chosen, it is chosen in light of the knowledge that death will occur–indicating intent to kill, even if death is not a preferred outcome. 

      All of that is to say, I don’t know that intent is adequate on its own, if one hopes to establish a sound distinction between  death-hastening palliative sedation and other kinds of killing. One approach would be to use a deontological approach that evaluates both intent and consequences.

      Or, one could use a completely other framework altogether :)

  • http://www.facebook.com/ray.sanchez.10420 Ray Sanchez

    I guess Job’s wife in the Bible would be the first Jack Kevorkian when she’s said curse God, and die! Long suffering in the Bible is in there, and i never understood why. Maybe as humans we need to go through our Journey as Jesus did, or suffering is just a part of our life, as birth pain to a woman. I think some is joyful some is sad, or even painful, but it is necessary to go through it. should we help people end their pain? That’s a hard question. I know as people we don’t like to see our animals suffer, so we put them down. Animals are not human, so i will quote Job when he said ” should we accept the good from God, and not the bad”. I think he works at his speed, and will never give you what you can’t handle. I know what i am saying is rather biblical, and not philosophical but i tend to trust in his word after the re-birth. I still struggle with the” what if “? in life but still can’t think any-other way.

    • AmyS

      Unless you are advocating for no pain relief under any circumstances, then you might have a consistent argument. But, I suspect that you have at times taken a Tylenol or a Motrin to ease your own pain (or would support the use of those by others). Both of those medicines take a toll on the body that could be viewed as potentially life-shortening. They are hard on the body, and can even cause serious damage to major organs. But most of us take them anyway because we believe that we should not suffer needlessly.

      Also, the words of Job are not a reliable source for good theology. In the book of Job, Elihu is the only human character that says anything theologically sound. Both Job and his other friends are totally confused about God and the nature of suffering until Job finally catches a clue in chapter 42 verses 2-6. The whole point of the book is that human beings are unable to understand the nature of suffering–we just have to trust God. But, that doesn’t mean we simply stand by idly while people suffer. Scripture is full of evidence that God does want human beings to suffer needlessly.

      About the only suffering I can find biblical affirmation of as “good” for people is that which results from faithful living–aka persecution and martyrdom. Christians are instructed to live according to the way of Christ even when that way leads to suffering. But, we are not told that every kind of suffering is good. Otherwise, why would we be told to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and visit those in prison? Rather, we embrace suffering for the sake of the Gospel, when it comes, not because suffering is good or even God’s intention for humanity, but because suffering for Christ is better than denying him.

      Providing palliative care which supports the dying process for those who are in constant misery and will not recover, hardly falls under the category of denying Christ. Providing pain relief, even when that means hastening the dying process (not killing, just not extending bodily “functionality” by artificial means, and providing adequate levels of pain relief medications),  seems to reflect the compassion of Jesus.

      • AmyS

         I meant to say, “If you are advocating…”

  • Pdiwill

    well this subject is very personal for me since I have been dignosed terminal for over 8 months now, I am pro assisted suside myself & always have been but am more so now, as I see my abilty to do simple everyday things like open a can of soda, a the fridge, a box ext slipping out of my relm of abilty & I was always the one that had “too much” stringth & acsedintly hurt people or damiged something. I see how everything brings me pain now & I have been a prisoner in my own apt for 6 months unable to go farther the 20 feet outside & thats with a servise dog & my Aunt comming over once a week to do shopping, laundery, ext for me. I have no qualty of life, I have no dignity. what is so great about serviveing when you stoped liveing long ago! I have planned my death twise (with the blessing of my family & friends) but have been unable to procure the means. I have personaly never understood why Christions exspeshily cling to life so hard, when were aware what is in store for us, I pray & begg nightly to “go home” but alas to no prevail, I get really mad at God & yell at him often becuse he has made me stay on this wretched planit. so I just don’t understand why anyone would denie someone else the right to die with dignity & not have to suffer the raviges of a desise that is going to kill you anyway.

    • mariakirby

       I can only imagine the challenges you face. It sounds terribly difficult and lonely. Yet I think there is still value to suffering.  When we are able to praise God in spite of our pain, we give him the greatest glory.  I know that when I’m in the midst of pain it is really hard to think of anything to praise God about but I am learning.  Who knows but that your ability to die well praising your maker would be the testimony needed to win hearts for Christ? I really believe that it is how we endure mortal suffering that builds an eternal dwelling. A seed can die and decay or a seed can die and become a plant. When a cell goes through cell division to create a new cell, it must first rip apart the old DNA instructions and reproduce a new set of DNA. If cells had feelings, I’m sure that would be a painful process.  Many of us don’t have the privilege to know when we will die.  We have no opportunity to bring closure to our lives and relationships.  We don’t have the opportunity to make amends, to say sorry for past offences.  God is giving you an incredible gift of an opportunity to forgive those who have hurt you before you die.  In your last hours you can defeat evil and promote peace through repentance and forgiveness. You have the opportunity to be thoughtful about how you can bless others with what you leave behind.  Many times the lack of thoughtfulness becomes a burden for those who remain, but you can turn it into a blessing.  And every day that someone cares for you, you can be a blessing to them, to listen to them, to comfort them, to share God’s grace with them.  It may be that there is a message he want to deliver to your caretakers through you.  You may have the opportunity to tell someone about the hope of the gospel who has become cynical from life’s pain and destruction; someone who wouldn’t normally hear the gospel except for the fact that they are caring for you.  I’m sure there are many more opportunities for God’s grace to flow through you if you look for them.  I look forward to meeting you on the other side -blessings! :)

      • AmyS

         “God is giving you an incredible gift”
        Even IF God gives the “incredible gift” of ALS, or Alzheimer’s, or melanoma, or any other truly horrible disease (a notion which is not the only orthodox opinion), this is something for the suffering person to say (if they believe it, and if they choose to say it), not for someone else to say for them. 

        Pdiwill, I pray that your suffering is over soon. May you be comforted in your sorrows until your resurrection day arrives. 

        • Pdiwill

          Thank you so much amys!

  • mariakirby

    One of the reasons I heard against the death penalty is that there is always an element of doubt about whether or not someone actually committed the crime that deserved death. And so to avoid accidentally killing an innocent person, the death penalty should be out-lawed. I think there is a similar danger with active euthanasia. I think there is always an element of doubt about the victim’s desire to die.  How can we be certain that someone else (maybe the assistant of death) wasn’t in some way bullying or acting coercively to cause the victim to die against their free will?  Death is final so it is impossible to go back and check or undo.

    I think that when we practice active euthanasia as a society we create an environment of fear -fear that some day someone will take our life.  Societies function best with trust.  When trust is undermined, societies degenerate.

    Societies are very similar to living organisms.  Within living organisms cells commit suicide when their functioning is compromised or  no longer needed.  This is called apoptosis. Consistency/compatibility with how nature works generally results in a more successful outcome. It could be argued that some suicides would actually benefit society.  That the resources given to prolong life for a terminally ill person would be better used to treat those with a better chance of living.  Triage is the name for the medical systems way apportioning limited resources.  If communities shared resources in common then triaging resources would result in passive euthanasia for certain members, but a healthier community overall.

    • AmyS

       One of the problems we face now is the vast number of medical interventions available. Not only do we have the capacity to extend life for a very long time, even in the absence of brain activity or ability on the body’s part to sustain life on its own, we seem to feel obligated to use those interventions.

      What you are referring to as “passive euthanasia” (withholding life-extending treatment) used to be called normal dying. The whole situation is crazymaking. Human beings shouldn’t have to make such decisions.

      Is this what happens when we finish the tower and climb up to the sky?

  • AmyS

    This is such a complicated subject. There are so many distinctions and definitions to make in order to define just what is meant by euthanasia. There is a whole spectrum of reasons why folks might want to choose the time and place of their own death. There is also the matter of whether the individual chooses euthanasia or it is chosen for them. 

    Certainly, voluntarily killing oneself (or being killed) in the absence of psychopathology or any particular pathophysiology (in order to facilitate one’s preferred “good death” event)  is a far different thing than electing to receive death-hastening palliative sedation. And both of those are far different from having one’s life involuntarily ended, after brain-death, via removal of life support technology. 

    Euthanasia is just far too broad a term.

  • Marbieabe

    I’m a pastor who has watched with many people dying.  It is so much easier if the person who makes their own choice.  Sometimes I have felt that the choice was close to killing….I find it very difficult to watch someone come off a respirator, for example.  It is much easier to watch with someone who has chosen to no longer have unusual methods to prolong life.  But death is like birth, no one can really predict it.  My brother-in-law was taken off his respirator and lived three more days.  My mom chose not to fight her cancer and died in five days.  A good friend has cancer and after the first treatment didn’t work, is choosing to live with it. So far she has made it through a year.  Another friend in a similar situation survives after five years. 
    I have slowly had to distinguish what is “normal” to prolong life and what is not.  Morphine enhances breathing, but may also hasten death.  Many people choose not to eat when in the dying process, so feeding by tube can be interference.
    Everyone’s body is so unique.  I have seen people who were supposed to die within a few hours become completely healthy. I would definitely err on the side of life.
    Pain is exhausting and difficult.  Hospice medicine is working with more and more drug mixes to keep pain from taking over.  I can’t be really excited about my own pain but I do accept it as part of what my life has. 
    I personally choose quality over quantity of life…to be with those I love until the last minute, but not being miserable with lots of treatment that may or may not be effective.

  • http://twitter.com/chuckjdv Chuckd

    it’s merciful after watching a dear friend die of cancer and alzheimer’s– I would now choose euthanasia for myself–this is coming from a former red neck who thought Jack was wrong– not any more 

  • Sharla C.

    How can euthanasia possibly be legal in any hospital or medical
    facility???? That is just insane.The states and countries where it is legal have
    terrible problems from it. There is already enough problems with medical staff
    who euthanize patients. It happens against a person’s will, in america and in
    states where it is not even legal.If people are not watching their relatives in
    the hospital or nursing home 24 hours a day then how are they supposed to know
    if their relative was not euthanized. I know that our relative was euthanized
    after a group of doctors lied and said that she had no quality of life.They had
    put her in a narcotic coma and then labeled her as a vegetable even though the
    coma was temporay.This happened against her and our will. She needed to continue
    with iv medicines that would have helped her heal a skin infection that had gone
    sepsis since she had no previous topical or oral treatment for it.They not only
    did not give her the medicine that she needed, but they instead purposely chose
    the wrong medicine for the soul purpose of killing her. There are doctors who
    feel it is necessary to not only actively euthanize patients, but who passively
    euthanize people as well, such as elders and or disabled people. This is done by
    not giving them proper medicines which can lead to death, known as passive
    euthanasia. Euthanasia is used weather it is to save medical costs, free up a
    bed lazy etc.How can it ever be legal to give a doctor that much power.Do people
    think that it will be up to the patients only.Ha,think again.That is totally
    crazy to allow euthanasia in any medical facility. There just needs to be very
    strict laws to stop euthanasia from ever being used by any medical professional.
    There are doctors who would never do it because they have morals and a
    conscience. However, for the bad ones who do not see anything wrong with it,
    those are the ones who we need to be afraid of.


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