What should God have to do with assisted suicide? Nothing.

What should God have to do with assisted suicide? Nothing. February 10, 2020

What’s dangerous about religious faith in America, whose populace is about 70 percent Christian, is not necessarily what true believers consciously think and say and do.

assisted suicide death dignity god christianity
Édouard Manet, “Le Suicidé” (The Suicide), ca. 1877. (Wikimedia, Public Domain)

No. What’s particularly dangerous is what they unconsciously think, the deep, subliminal spiritual assumptions underlying everything believers consciously think and say and do.

The key central subliminal Christian assumption is that the supernatural proclamations of the Bible and of God’s purported intimately personal role in their lives are irrefutably true, even with virtually zero corroborative evidence.

Why they have this faith is curious, considering that science has already undeniably debunked much of the Bible’s assumptions, from how humans naturally evolved incrementally over eons to the fact that Earth is not only not the center of the universe but a tiny speck in a wilderness galaxy in the middle of nowhere. And human beings are not the be-all/end-all of the cosmos, the apple of the divine eye (as impressive as we may seem to each other).

I was thinking about this the other day as I read an op-ed piece by a local city council member (“What masquerades as mercy.”). It was a very logical, readable and reasonable opinion piece about assisted suicide — right up to the very last paragraph, which revealed his deep assumption that invisible, omnipotent beings are absolutely real.

“The legislature should resist any attempt to legalize assisted suicide. The answer is palliative care and pain management,” he wrote, adding this bit of personal revelation — “There are some things best left to God …”

The inherent problem with this kind of thinking is that it actually encourages people not to think. It encourages them to designate an enormous swath of human potential as sacrosanct, off limits to human imagination, innovation and our awesome capacity — God-given, as it were — to solve practical problems, ease suffering and empower our species to do good in the world.

This was the same God-centered argument clergy used in the summer of 1721 to try and stop Boston, Massachusetts, physician Zabdiel Boylston from trying a radical treatment during a killer smallpox epidemic in the city — vaccinations. He was “playing God.” An opponent, emboldened by local Christian leaders, threw a hand-grenade into Boylston’s home, but no one was injured.

Boylston later vaccinated 180-200 Bostonians against smallpox, including his son and two of his slaves. His son and slaves survived along with a much larger percentage of townspeople than those unvaccinated. By the early 1800s, vaccination was an accepted treatment in the city and surrounding communities.

The upshot of this story is that many people did not die who would have without vaccinations — following God’s supposed command to refrain. If fantasies of the divine stop people from using their reason and common sense and instead devote themselves to unsubstantiated superstition, everyone loses.

What is the point of loving a divine idea but needlessly allowing fellow human beings to suffer and die? I know, God works in mysterious ways, but what way of any benevolent deity would allow suffering that it could easily avoid?

Regarding assisted suicide, this otherwise reasonable city council member, rationally explained in the article that:

  • A quarter of all Medicare expenses ($125 billion in 2017) are expended in the last year of life, “mainly because we go through Herculean efforts to keep people, who have no chance of recovery, alive just a little bit longer.”
  • Three states (Colorado, Oregon and Washington) and Washington, D.C., have legalized assisted suicide in ballot initiatives, and five others (California, Hawaii, Maine, New Jersey, and Vermont) have passed laws in their legislatures. Montana’s Supreme Court declared it a human right for citizens of the state. The Netherlands, Switzerland, and other nations also have such laws already on their books.
  • A 2018 Gallup poll found that 72 percent of Americans believe doctors should be allowed to “end the patient’s life by some painless means.”

Still, the writer, clearly a good, empathetic person, is worried about seniors being pressured into ending their lives in a society where by 2035 Americans over 65 will for the first time outnumber those under 18. Also by that year, studies predict a shortage of 500,000 home health care aides, and nursing homes, which now exceed $80,000 a year on average in his Midwestern state, will likely be even more unaffordable to many.

These are reasonable worries, where as the “burdens” of seniors on society’s financial and care resources become unmanageable, pressure could build on the aged to make a graceful, selfless exit.

I agree that we need to think through the enormous implications of our aging society, in terms of assisted suicide and everything else that promises to be significantly affected.

But “God” should not be a factor in any of the research and discussions, only material reality and how best as a society to deal effectively, in a humanistic way, with these bracing practical challenges.

Certainly, we should not wish anyone to leave this world sooner than they might. But if anything should be a private matter and nothing for government to decide, suicide is it. Of course, if physical or psychic pain, or the hopelessness of terminal illness is experienced as unendurably agonizing by victims, it should be their choice whether and how to end it.

Unfortunately, few of us know how to end our lives painlessly or gracefully. So people who do know how to provide such a merciful service should not be prohibited from performing it with the proper minimum of government oversight to help ensure sufferers are not further abused in their quest for relief.

We are the captains of our own fates, not God.

So when intimations of immortality encroach on our reason from the subliminal depths, it’s a problem for reason.

Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

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