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I’m a Christian & I Live in the Real World, Thinking Through Ethics – Euthanasia

25 Jun

This was part #3 to a series on ethics given during the Sunday PM services at Howick Baptist Church. A full PDF along with related links and an MP3 download of the talk can be found here.

Defining Terms:

Euthanasia: From the Greek, euthanatos which means, literally: easy death, or “to die well.”

Voluntary/Non-voluntary/Involuntary

Voluntary: A case where a patient requests death or gives permission to be put to death. (Generally considered equivalent to suicide.)

Non-voluntary: The intentional killing of a person who can neither confirm nor deny a request to be killed.

Involuntary: Someone is intentionally put to death who expressly withheld consent.

Active/Passive

Active: Taking a purposeful action to end a life.

Passive: Withholding or refusing treatment to sustain life.

Direct/Indirect

Direct: The individual themselves carries out the decision to die.

Indirect: A situation where someone else carries out the decision. (i.e. doctor assisted suicide, DAS)

Death with Dignity: Allowing a patient to die a truly human death.

Mercy Killing: The intent to release someone who is suffering excruciating pain and has no other way of escape but death.

Death Selection: The deliberate removal of persons whose lives are no longer considered socially useful.

Cultural/Historical Trends:

“A United Nations study on population notes that since the start of recorded history young children have outnumbered older people, but that will change very soon.”[1]

Advances in medical technology have brought about end of life decisions never conceived of in previous generations.

Advances in palliative care have provided facility where family can be disconnected from those who are suffering.

1935 – The Euthanasia Society of England (1938 for the US)

1969 – British Medical Association passed a resolution that the medical community has a duty to preserve life and relieve pain, euthanasia was condemned.

The Netherlands:

Since 1993, though technically illegal, doctors could perform DAS without much concern for prosecution.

In 1995 about 3,600 people (2.7% of all deaths) were euthanized.

2002 Netherlands, the first country to legalise euthanasia.

Nearly 4,000 people/year continue to be euthanized.

22 July 2012 (yet to be drawn), “End of Life Choice Bill”, Hon Maryan Street. Has the support of John Key and many others.[2]

What Does the Bible Say?:

Genesis 1:26-27; 5:1; 9:5-7 – Human life is to be valued as having inherent dignity and worth as all people are created in the image of God.

Exodus 20:13 – God’s people are not to indiscriminately take the life of others.

Job 14:5; Eccl. 3:2; Psalm 139:16; James 4:13-15 – It is God who determines the length of our days.

Job; Romans 5:3-5; 8:18-32; 1 Peter 1:6-9; 2 Corinthians 4:17, 12:10 – Suffering is not to be pursued, but it is a regular and even expected tool used by our Heavenly Father to conform us to the image of His Son and prepare us for eternity with Him.

Luke 16:19ff; Romans 8:18ff; 1 Corinthians 15:20-23; 2 Corinthians 5:8; Revelation 20:4-5, 11-15 – For the Christian our ultimate hope for escaping suffering and pain is not physical death, but the final resurrection of the body.

Personhood: Whoever has the basic DNA of human nature qualifies as a human person. This is opposed to the sociological (“quality of life”) or developmental (physiological capacities) definition.

Rules out “active euthanasia” in favour of sanctity of human life.

Allows for “passive euthanasia” only when a person would die soon anyway with ordinary care.

Medical Involvement:

The NZMA[3] is opposed to both the concept and practice of euthanasia and doctor assisted suicide.

Euthanasia, that is the act of deliberately ending the life of a patient, even at the patient’s request or at the request of close relatives, is unethical. (World Medical Association Declaration on Euthanasia, October 1987.)

Doctor-assisted suicide, like euthanasia, is unethical. (World Medical Association Statement on Physician Assisted Suicide, September 1992.)

The NZMA however encourages the concept of death with dignity and comfort, and strongly supports the right of patients to decline treatment, or to request pain relief, and supports the right of access to appropriate palliative care.

In supporting patients’ right to request pain relief, the NZMA accepts that the proper provision of such relief, even when it may hasten the death of the patient, is not unethical.

This NZMA position is not dependent on euthanasia and doctor-assisted suicide remaining unlawful. Even if they were to become legal, or decriminalised, the NZMA would continue to regard them as unethical.

Hippocratic Oath[4]: When a doctor takes this oath he promises to use medicine to help the sick and never to injure them. In addition he promises never to give poison to anyone, even if asked to.

What is Death?

“In our opinion[5], at present the best one can do is invoke criteria set forth by an Ad Hoc Committee of the Harvard Medical School. The committee defined brain death—irreversible coma—by four criteria. They are 1) unreceptivity and unresponsivity (no stimuli of any sort evoke any kind of response); 2) no movements or spontaneous breathing for at least an hour; 3) no reflexes, and fixed dilated pupils; 4) flat brain wave (flat EEG) for at least ten minutes, preferably twenty. All four must apply, and they must still be true of the patient twenty-four hours after first tested.”108

When and How to intervene:

“Do whatever is possible to relieve pain, and do not force the patient to undergo procedures or take medicines already proven ineffective or that have no foreseeable benefit. However, because of the commandment not to take life, do not kill or aid the patient in committing suicide. If painkillers hasten death, but the intent is to relieve pain, giving pain medicine is morally acceptable.”[6]

What About Dying Well?

Everyone, including myself and my own family, barring the return of Christ is going to die. I want them to live well, to live lives glorifying to God. Yet, more than this, I want them to be prepared to die well.

In order for death to lose its sting (Hosea 13:14; 1 Corinthians 15:55) people need to be prepared to die well.

Euthanasia is not helping people to die well. This is one of the greatest missuses of language I can imagine.

Preparing people to die well, is done by calling all men, women, and children everywhere to repent of their sins and trust in the Lord Jesus Christ, Who conquered death; and Who lives, so that though they may die, they may live again.

John Newton once said, “It is the duty of a minister of the gospel to prepare his people to die well.”

Let us stand against this culture of death, by pointing people to a living Saviour, Who can save them from their sins and remove the sting of death!

C.H. Spurgeon: “O child of God, death hath lost its sting, because the devil’s power over it is destroyed. Then cease to fear dying. Ask grace from God the Holy Ghost, that by an intimate knowledge and a firm belief of thy Redeemer’s death, thou mayst be strengthened for that dread hour. Living near the cross of Calvary thou mayst think of death with pleasure, and welcome it when it comes with intense delight. It is sweet to die in the Lord: it is a covenant-blessing to sleep in Jesus. Death is no longer banishment, it is a return from exile, a going home to the many mansions where the loved ones already dwell. The distance between glorified spirits in heaven and militant saints on earth seems great; but it is not so. We are not far from home–a moment will bring us there. The sail is spread; the soul is launched up on the deep. How long will be its voyage? How many wearying winds must beat upon the sail ere it shall be reefed in the port of peace? How long shall that soul be tossed upon the waves before it comes to that sea which knows no storm? Listen to the answer, “absent from the body, present with the Lord.” Yon ship has just departed, but it is already at its have. It did but spread its sail and it was there. Like that ship of old, upon the Lake of Galilee, a storm had tossed it, but Jesus said, “Peace, be still,” and immediately it came to land. Think not that a long period intervenes between the instant of death and the eternity of glory. When the eyes close on earth they open in heaven. The horses of fire are not an instant on the road. Then, O child of God, what is there for thee to fear in death, seeing that through the death of thy Lord its curse and sting are destroyed? and now it is but a Jacob’s ladder whose foot is in the dark grave, but its top reaches to glory everlasting.”

From Euthanasia to the Gospel[7]

By Tony Payne

You’ve invited the neighbours over for dinner. Dessert has been successfully concluded, and the kids have retired to their bedroom where they are conducting experiments in paint durability under various impact scenarios. The coffee orders are being taken. As it so often does, the conversation is meandering down loosely connected paths and byways, and your dreams of perhaps talking about the gospel (or even something vaguely Christian) seem to be fading faster than the paint in the kids’ bedroom.

Then all of a sudden your neighbour passes from a heated discussion of Paul Keating’s pig farm to the euthanasia debate. You are struck with inspiration. Euthanasia! Here’s your chance to talk about life and death issues. Surely you could score a few points for the gospel here.

But how? With the advice of I’d like an argument, please ringing in your ears, you want to tread carefully.

You don’t want to wade straight in with the utilitarian argument, for example, partly because you can’t quite remember what ‘utilitarian’ means. (Reminder: a utilitarian argument focuses on the consequences of a particular action; it is about whether it will produce, in the end, good effects or bad effects.) The utilitarian argument on euthanasia is a telling one, but even if you succeeded in establishing the point you wouldn’t be very much closer to the gospel. The best you could expect is a grudging admission that your proposal might cause less overall harm to society than his proposal. No, perhaps you ought to avoid the utilitarian argument on utilitarian grounds.

Nor do you want to appeal to intuition (“Surely it is wrong to take someone else’s life”). Your neighbours, who support euthanasia, may well reply with an equally strong intuitive argument (“Surely it is indefensible to allow a fellow human being to suffer like that; how can you simply stand there in the face of that senseless human agony, staring into those eyes pleading with you to do something to end the pain, and not act?”). No, maybe the intuitive approach might not be a good move.

That leaves the theological arguments (“God is the giver and taker of life, not us” etc.), but since your neighbours are born-again agnostics, that’s not going to cut much ice either. You can already hear them responding: “There you go, bringing God into it again. What gives you the right to impose your God on someone else’s choice to die with dignity?” That sounds tricky.

To make matters worse, while you have been silently weighing up these conversational options, your neighbours have finished their second cups of coffee, coughed several times, looked at their watches, and gone home.

“It’s all right, dear”, says your wife. “I told them you were contemplating euthanasia.”

One thing was certain: your evangelistic efforts had died a death, and without dignity.

How might this lamentable situation have been retrieved?

As we suggested in the ‘From the Archives’ article, the key is to question your opponent’s moral assumptions. What underlying moral claims does the pro-euthanasia lobby make? What basis do they have for making these?

There are many moral avenues down which your argument might travel. An obvious one is the issue of ‘rights’, since the pro-euthanasia argument is largely based on an ethic of rights. It is argued that human beings have the ‘right’ to determine the time and manner of their own death, as a matter of natural justice. This is a positive moral claim—that it is right and just for a person to be allowed to control their own death, and that it is wrong and unjust for that autonomy to be denied them. That is what a ‘right’ is—something that is mine by just claim; something that ought to be inalienably mine, as established by some principle of justice or law.

The obvious question to ask is: Says who? Who says that it is right and just for a human to determine the time and manner of his death? Where is the principle of justice established that gives humans this right of self-determination?

Ask the question and see what your neighbours say. They will try to put their foot down on something firm and find that the ground they never stopped to think about isn’t there. They have a limited number of alternatives:

They can argue on the basis of intuition (“surely this is self-evident”), but if I disagree, then it comes down to a matter of personal preference. Their moral claim in the end has all the vigour and substance of KFC (“I like it like that”).

If total moral anarchy doesn’t appeal to them, they can take refuge in the decision of the majority (“most right-thinking people would agree”), but on this basis the world was once flat, and it was once right in one country to exterminate 6 million Jews.

They can try to argue from some sort of utilitarian position (what will produce the most good), but will not get very far. For one thing, it is hard to argue that, individual self-determination, as a moral principle, would produce goodness and happiness in society. You could make a stronger case for self-determination being the ruin of society. Moreover, in order to say that something will produce the most good, your neighbours need to be able to define what is ‘good’, and the problem of the unsupported moral claim recurs.

In the end, your friends are left with an appeal to some sort of higher moral standard or principle—something which transcends personal preference or intuition. But where is this standard to be found? Why can we not agree about it?

You must gently point out that once God is left out, there is no higher objective standard to which we can appeal, unless you count the United Nations, and not even your neighbours are that naive. Their moral claim is completely without rational foundation, as is their argument in favour of euthanasia. Without God, there are no ‘rights’, for in a purely materialist world what happens is simply what happens. Pain and suffering are just words we give to certain kinds of activity in our nerve endings.

On this depressing note, you might leave your neighbours to stew for a while. Or you might take the opportunity which hopefully arises (then or later) to explain how God is the basis of all moral claims, for he made the world, and us in it, to live under his authority. He establishes what is ‘right’ and ‘just’, and only under his rule and with his values does the world make sense.

From there, you can proceed to how you know this to be the case—because of Jesus, who came to reveal the Father and to reconcile us to him.


[1] John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World: 2nd Edition (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2010), 160.

[5] John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 123.

108 “A Definition of Irreversible Coma: Report of the Ad Hoc Committee of the Harvard Medical School to Examine the Definition of Brain Death,” The Journal of the American Medical Association 205 (August 5, 1968): 337–340.

[6] John S. Feinberg and Paul D. Feinberg, Ethics for a Brave New World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1993), 124.

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