Graham – in this month’s challenging spiritual question we will refer to the ‘for’ and ‘against’ regarding people wanting to take their own life and the myriad of complex aspects governing this very emotive subject.
As a child, I was brought up very firmly to believe that God makes the plans and decisions for our lives, which are sometimes in contravention to what we might want for ourselves. I still pretty much go along with that belief but, fortunately so far, I haven’t ever been put to the test of being so ill or in pain that I might want to decide to call it a day.
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As with all issues where theological debate and human identity and suffering intersect, this is not a topic that can be discussed in the abstract. People are living with terminal illness; people are facing death with courage and with fear; people are bereaved or about to be bereaved. Christians will reach different conclusions on whether or not they wish to support assisted dying legislation but the Christian gospel of God’s love transcends all such discussions. As Paul said to the church in Rome, who were no strangers to suffering and death:
‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all Creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8.38-39)
Is it not possible, Graham, that God gave us free will to decide our own fate, particularly during times of deep anguish, loss, sadness, hopelessness and the wide range of other emotional and mental pains that the human spirit can experience? For those people facing a terminal illness, surely a loving God would be forgiving if they took their own life, with or without assistance from other people? And, for those who don’t have any sort of faith, is it not their own decision what they do with their own life? Over to you Graham!
Rev Graham replies:
Thanks, Carol, for this timely and highly-controversial question that centres on the subject of assisted suicide which is being discussed and argued for and against in many countries throughout the world. I want to consider the subject in three simple parts which hopefully enables us to make our own conclusions in an area that is complex yet quite straight-forward depending on your own point of view. Compassion and Dignity. Competing Philosophies and Outcomes.
Compassion and Dignity
A person who is compassionate seeks to walk in the shoes of another and, in so doing, has empathy and a willingness to accommodate their needs and requirements. It is very easy to judge and dismiss another person’s opinion and choices if they do not fit into our own philosophy and outcomes.
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At this point it might be helpful to think about how we perceive God; as one full of compassion who understands our human frailties and one who wants us to hold true to the dignity and sanctity of life.
From a humanistic and atheist point of view, people are very compassionate and do not want a person to linger in agony and so are happy to offer a choice for a person to end their own life with assistance and dignity. Both viewpoints would relate to a person who feels that they no longer want to live because of their illness and want to be ‘put out of their misery’. May we consider some bible verses which bring out the importance of being compassionate.
God of Compassion
But you, Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness (Psalm 86:15). As Christians, we believe in a loving and compassionate God which, compared with many, with or without faith, believe that God is not compassionate if he condemns the taking or assisting of a person’s life.
Jesus Was Loving and Compassionate
When Jesus heard what had happened, he withdrew by boat privately to a solitary place. Hearing of this, the crowds followed him on foot from the towns. When Jesus landed and saw a great crowd, he had compassion for them and healed their sick (Matthew14:13 – 14). Jesus exercised a loving and compassionate ministry of healing available for all in whatever circumstances they found themselves. He also referred to the Ten Commandments and spoke his Sermon on the Mount.
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and clearly loved, clothe yourself with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience (Colossians 3:12). In the context of our faith, it is important to be reminded that we are required to reflect the character and compassion of God to all we live and work with.
Philosophy – Arguments for and against
Central to the debate around assisted suicide is the argument as to whom we are accountable in regards to decisions and consequences we take in life. If we believe God governs the world, then any human activity has to come under his jurisdiction. Conversely, if we feel there is no God or super-being controlling us and we are not accountable to, then we have the freedom to live, amend and end our own lives subject only to the legal and civil laws of the land we live in.
In defining euthanasia there are four aspects to it that are: Active; Indirect; Passive and Assisted Suicide. Each one may include some help from a third party, such as a doctor providing lethal drugs, for a person who has a terminal and incurable illness or condition.
In a very brief manner, the following points seek to summarise arguments for and against Assisted Suicide. “Patrick Stuart, Patron of Dignity in Dying, says: “We have no control over how we arrive in the world but, at the end of life, we should have control over how we leave it.”
- The ‘compassionate argument’. It is felt that, in allowing people to ‘die with dignity’, it is kinder than forcing them to continue ‘living with suffering’.
- The ‘autonomy argument’. People believe that every patient has a ‘right to choose when to die’.
- The ‘public policy argument’. Proponents believe that assisted suicide can be safely regulated by government legislation.
René Girard, Philosopher, says: “The experience of death is going to get more and more painful, contrary to what many people believe. The forthcoming Euthanasia Bill will make it more rather than less painful because it will put the emphasis on personal decision in a way which was blissfully alien to the whole problem of dying in former times. It will make death even more subjectively intolerable for people will feel responsible for their own deaths and morally obligated to rid their relatives of their unwanted presence. Euthanasia will further intensify all the problems its advocates think it will solve.”
- Alternative treatments are available for those living with suffering, such as palliative and hospice care. It is not necessary to kill the patient’s life to kill the symptoms! The hospice movement is full of compassion and dignity and offers to all at the point of need help and support when facing ultimately the prospect of death. Jesus died that we may experience a life filled with God’s spirit right up to our last physical breath.
- We do not have a ‘right to be killed’. In allowing the opening of a gate for voluntary euthanasia and assisted suicide it will lead to more non-voluntary and involuntary euthanasia by giving doctors the power to decide when a patient’s ‘life is not worth living’ .
- There are cases where assisted suicide and physician-assisted suicide takes place but doctors have not always reported them. It will be impossible for any government to safely and fully regulate its legislation whatever its intention.
- Where patients feel that they have a right to die, it will become more burdensome on doctors to monitor it and will find that they have a duty to kill patients. A ‘right to die’ for some people may by implication mean that others have a ‘duty to die’ which applies to those individuals who are vulnerable and dependant on others.
Further questions to consider: Who loses and gains from assisted suicide? It is important to maintain love and support for vulnerable individuals. Assisted suicide promotes the idea that some people’s lives are not worth preserving and helping and, as such, devalues their worth especially if we believe they have been made in the image of God.
At the centre of the Christian faith is the symbol of the cross on which Christ died. Death came into the world as a result of disobedience to God’s instructions and we are not designed for it; that’s why it hurts so much. Yet one day there will be an end to death. Those who are pro-assisted suicide see death as a friend that relieves people from unwelcomed pain and suffering which is a result of the fall in Eden. We do not know why suffering exists but God does and we can learn and gain from it.
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Christians believe that we are made in the image of God and, in whatever context life brings to each one, it’s important to maintain a person’s dignity and self-worth. People without faith often conclude that we are just atoms joined together and therefore our value is determined by thoughts, actions and experiences.
Therefore the unborn child and a person wanting to end their own life have little value and worth physically. If our value is based on us being created in the image of God, then dignity and value is high for every unborn and living person. There is a strong case for assisted dying but there should be a stronger case for assisted living in all its forms.
Big ethical questions have no easy answers! In considering your question Carol, whose life is it anyway, we have to navigate through various views and opinions and be willing to express our own thoughts with love and compassion whilst respecting others who have a different viewpoint. Suicide and assisted dying will and does affect the wider family and community. The testimony of the hospice movement’s love and dignity in caring for the dying is immense and we can learn so much about the value of life and seeking to preserve it, as opposed to ending it and seeing life as disposable and dependant on the individual.
Try to keep up to date with the progress of the Assisted Dying Bill which is being considered at this present time and, in your own way, express your view to strengthen society as a whole.
For further reading check out Carol’s previous question on Suicide and Graham’s blog on Compassion Fatigue.
Thanks for references for the notes Care.Org.uk and Christian Concern.Com
Is God relevant to our life and modern times?