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Euthanasia

Applied ethics

Christian attitudes to euthanasia (Part 1): Introduction, Roman Catholic teaching

Information: This article sets out some of the main Christian beliefs about euthanasia. A version of this article was originally published on the website www.faithnet.org.uk.

Introduction

Picture of a syringeChristians believe that all human life is special and sacred, and for this reason they consider it wrong to take the life of another person. In the matter of Christian attitudes to abortion, discussion usually centres on whether an embryo/fetus is a person with full human rights, or not. However, in the matter of euthanasia, the question concerns the matter of quality of life, and whether helping someone to die is morally wrong and contrary to the Will of God.

'Do not kill.' (Exodus 20:13).

Picture of the Ten CommandmentsThe fifth commandment explicitly says that is it wrong to kill, and as such seems to rule out any act of euthanasia being deemed morally right (as far the Bible is concerned). However, as with the matter of abortion, we cannot simply pluck verses out from different places in the Bible without considering their context, and relevance. For instance, although God commanded the Israelites not to kill (Exodus 20:13), God also instructed them to go and kill people, even other Israelites (see Exodus 32:26-28). Therefore, 'Do not kill' seems to be a command relative to the situation. The fact that God instructed the Israelites to kill on several different occasions, seems to imply that there might be times when the taking of life is morally justified.

Both Christians and non-Christians are equally concerned with the question of whether it is ever right to take the life of someone who asks to die, if they are suffering from a terminal illness (or are in great pain because of an illness). However, as with abortion some Christians push the matter of murder issue to forefront, thus implying that any act of taking another person's life is always wrong. Of course, in doing so they have to deal with the problems verses such as Exodus 32:26-28 raises (above).

Some Christians may say that the issue of 'quality of life' is not to be measured by a person's physical health, but by their relationship with God. They would say that it is only when a person has a relationship with God, that they have any real 'quality of life' - [Jesus said] 'I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full' (John 10:10).

What the Bible says about euthanasia

Unlike abortion, the act of euthanasia is mentioned twice in the Bible:

'Abimelech went to the tower and stormed it. But as he approached the entrance to the tower to set it on fire, a woman dropped an upper millstone on his head and cracked his skull. Hurriedly he called to his armor-bearer, "Draw your sword and kill me, so that they can't say, 'A woman killed him.' " So his servant ran him through, and he died. When the Israelites saw that Abimelech was dead, they went home.' (Judges 9:52-55)

"Then [Saul] said to me, 'Stand over me and kill me! I am in the throes of death, but I'm still alive.' "So I stood over him and killed him, because I knew that after he had fallen he could not survive. And I took the crown that was on his head and the band on his arm and have brought them here to my lord." (2 Samuel 1:9-10 [Bracket mine])

The Amalekite who recounts this second story (and who killed Saul), is later put to death by David (Saul's successor) for doing so.

In both these accounts, the idea that euthanasia is an acceptable practice is not considered. In the first account, Abimelech asks to be put to death simply so that he would not suffer the shame of being killed by a woman (who had dropped a large stone on him). The second account records the final moments of a king who had acted contrary to God's Will, and as such had lost the right to lead the people.

Some might argue that David's taking of the Amalekite's life, was evidence that his taking Saul's life had been a wrong thing to do. However, it needs to be noted that David did this because the Amalekite had killed a king of Israel, not because he had performed 'euthanasia' on someone:

'David said to the young man who brought him the report, "Where are you from?" "I am the son of an alien, an Amalekite," he answered. David asked him, "Why were you not afraid to lift your hand to destroy the LORD's anointed?" Then David called one of his men and said, "Go, strike him down!" So he struck him down, and he died. For David had said to him, "Your blood be on your own head. Your own mouth testified against you when you said, 'I killed the LORD's anointed.'" (2 Samuel 1: 13-15)

It might be said that because these passages do not condone or condemn the act of euthanasia, that they are relevant to the debate. Taken literally, they might also imply that it is morally right to prevent men from being killed by women, or to kill monarchs who no longer profess to follow the God of the Bible.

Despite the lack of direct teaching about the matter of euthanasia in the Bible, many Christians have been keen to adopt a pro-life stance on the issue.

Something to think about: Do you think it is significant that there appears to be no direct teaching about euthanasia in the Bible? What do you think this says about the matter, as far as God is concerned?

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The Roman Catholic Church

The Roman Catholic Church's teaching on euthanasia can be found in the Declaration on Euthanasia: Sacred Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, May 5, 1980. All quotes in this section are taken from this document.

As the Roman Catholic Church is resolutely pro-life, we should not be surprised to find out that its attitude to euthanasia is the same as that of abortion - it is absolutely forbidden!

'The Second Vatican Ecumenical Council solemnly reaffirmed the lofty dignity of the human person, and in a special way his or her right to life. The Council therefore condemned crimes against life "such as any type of murder, genocide, abortion, euthanasia, or willful suicide.'

The church exhorts (encourages) believers to value life, and in particular to see their own life as a gift from God. Being given the chance to live is a tremendous privilege, and as such members of the church should take every opportunity to serve God, and enrich their lives. The gift of life should never be squandered:

'Intentionally causing one's own death, or suicide, is therefore equally as wrong as murder; such an action on the part of a person is to be considered as a rejection of God's sovereignty and loving plan.'

'It is necessary to state firmly once more that nothing and no one can in any way permit the killing of an innocent human being, whether a fetus or an embryo, an infant or an adult, an old person, or one suffering from an incurable disease, or a person who is dying. Furthermore, no one is permitted to ask for this act of killing, either for himself or herself or for another person entrusted to his or her care… For it is a question of the violation of the divine law, an offense against the dignity of the human person, a crime against life, and an attack on humanity.'

Instead of euthanasia, the church wants people to be cared for in their last days. They need love, rather than a lethal injection! Someone dealing with a terminal illness should be surrounded by their family and friends.

People suffering with terminal illnesses sometimes move to a hospice. These are places where patients can be given specialist medical attention, as well as emotional and spiritual support. Those who do not agree with euthanasia often argue that hospices provide people will find all the love, care and support they will need, to see out their last days.

Interestingly, the church acknowledges the place of suffering in a person's life. In particular, to suffer gives a believer the opportunity to draw closer to Christ, and in particular to share in the knowledge of his pain and suffering on the cross (an act Christians believe brought them salvation):

'According to Christian teaching... suffering, especially suffering during the last moments of life, has a special place in God's saving plan; it is in fact a sharing in Christ's passion [sufferings] and a union with the redeeming sacrifice which He offered in obedience to the Father's will.'

All this might imply that Catholics should avoid pain-relieving drugs, but this is not so. Pain-relieving drugs are permitted, providing their use does not get in the way of someone being able to carry out their religious or moral duties. Also, if the taking of drugs will hasten the death of someone, that is also permitted, but provided this is not the primary intention of taking them.

'In this case, of course, death is in no way intended or sought, even if the risk of it is reasonably taken; the intention is simply to relieve pain effectively, using for this purpose painkillers available to medicine... However, painkillers that cause unconsciousness need special consideration. For a person not only has to be able to satisfy his or her moral duties and family obligations; he or she also has to prepare himself or herself with full consciousness for meeting Christ.'

The idea of someone doing something to achieve one effect, but not being blamed for the second effect occurring, is known as the Doctrine of Double Effect.

Something to discuss: The Roman Catholic Church believes people should die naturally. However, what constitutes a 'natural death'? Are people wanting euthanasia to relieve their suffering, doing something natural or unnatural?

Christian attitudes to euthanasia (Part 2): Church of England and other Christian views

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