The word ‘euthanasia’ means ‘dying well’. When referred to these days, it usually refers to the grounds upon which others should be permitted to speed up or ease the death of another person. Following on from the principles established in a previous article on abortion, which is the taking of human life in its infancy, we turn to euthanasia, which is the taking of human life in its dependency. Two instances are usually given. On the one hand we are often told it is good for us to hasten the death of the elderly because they have no quality of life, and are a burden to themselves and to others; on the other hand, we are encouraged to think that any life which has lost its quality is better ended;and that those of any age who are disabled, have incurable diseases, or face intolerable suffering, should either be encouraged to take steps to end their own lives (assisted suicide) or should have the decision made for them (mercy-killing). It would be good to re-iterate what the Bible teaches. God has expressly forbidden the murder, or unjustifiable killing, of human beings when, in His seventh commandment, He said, ‘Thou shalt not kill’, Exod. 20. 13; Rom. 13. 9-10. The force of the word ‘kill’ here is ‘murder’, which is unlawful killing. There are instances where God recognizes some killing of humans as lawful: capital punishment, which is state-execution of a murderer, is one instance, Gen. 9. 6; Exod. 21. 12; Num 35. 31; Rom. 13. 4, as was war where God commanded it, (a ‘just war’ in those circumstances). However, unlawful killing is prohibited by God. The killing of animals is not included in this commandment. God has never prohibited the killing of animals. In fact, He expects and commands it in cases of sacrificial offering and for food, Exod.12. 3-8; Gen 9. 3. Human life, however,is different for the following reasons:
Mankind is made ‘in the image of God’. This was true of Adam and Eve, God’s direct creations in the beginning, Gen. 1. 26-28, and of human beings created subsequently by the natural, yet divinely over-seen, process of conception and birth, Gen.9. 5-6. It is this creation in the image of God that sets mankind apart from all other living creatures, giving amoral and a spiritual capacity that animals do not have. It also reflects the fact that mankind as a whole are placed on the earth as God’s representatives, to ‘rule’ His creation. Man is, therefore, the visible representative of God on the earth. As such, human beings have great dignity in God’s creation.
The human soul will not come to an end, unlike other living creatures. A human soul lasts forever, and will, after this life, either take its place in heaven or in hell, Heb. 9. 12;Lk. 16. 19-31. There is, for every human being, the prospect of everlasting life or of everlasting death, the latter being everlasting separation from the presence of God.
Because of this dignity and eternity, the unlawful killing of a human being was prohibited by God, with capital punishment being the sentence. ‘Who so sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed’, Gen. 9. 6. and, ‘He that killeth any man shall surely be put to death’, Lev. 24.17-21. Human life, therefore, is special. One often hears the argument, when others see people facing intense suffering, ‘It’s such a shame. We would not let a dog die like that’. But people are not dogs. We may put down injured animals, but that is because they are animals. Human beings have souls that will never die and it is surely only God’s right to send a soul into eternity to face its Maker, not ours. The growing trend of governments today is to push further and further the boundaries and to make it legal to terminate life under certain circumstances. The growing human rights lobby, which has as part of its agenda the right to ‘die with dignity’,is a powerful one and often crystallizes its arguments around emotive cases; a couple who are devoted to each other, yet one pleads for the right to end the other’s life because of extreme suffering;children with incurable and painful disease that make headline news;instances where it is obvious that‘quality of life’ is no longer present.Yet we ought to remember the saying that ‘hard cases make bad laws’. In certain circumstances, governments are increasingly saying, doctors should be given the right to, and legal protection to, assist or facilitate death. Yet large numbers of doctors in the UK recently signed a statement in which they said they did not want to be given this right. For them, the most important thing is to alleviate human suffering, rather than to facilitate human death. The ethical basis of euthanasia, assisted suicide, mercy killing, or whatever other term is used, should be assessed in the light of the following non-emotive arguments:
In the matter of the taking of life it is God who gives and God who takes away. Even though governments may change the law of the land to make it legal to intervene and take another person’s life, making something legal does not make it either ethical or moral. Any intervention that leads to human beings taking human life on any grounds other than those God has laid down (capital punishment and a just war, for instance) is, in the eyes of God, unlawful killing and therefore murder.
Secondly we need to ask ourselves, what right does anyone else have to decide whether the quality of life of another is good enough for them to stay alive. Just because someone is severely disabled, or in excruciating pain, or facing an incurable illness that may lead to prolonged suffering, or has become a burden to themselves and to others, does not entitle us to decide to end things for them. BRIAN EDWARDS has written, ‘The value of life is not based upon the ability to feel pain or to communicate but on the fact that every human being is created in the likeness of God and he alone controls both life and death’. The Ten Commandments For Today, Day One Publications, 1996, p194.There are a number of other issues related to illness in which many find themselves and a number of related complexities arise in our modern society.
As a result of amazing medical and technical skill, doctors are able to keep patients ‘alive’ on life support machines for years and years. The great debate to which this eventually gives rise is this, Is it right to switch off a life-support machine and if so, when? Perhaps we ought to be asking ourselves whether it is right to keep people ‘alive’ in such artificial circumstances. We have all heard of stories where life-support machines were switched off and the patient continued to live. No doubt it was God’s will in the end that they should do so, just as it is God’s will if they don’t. This is not to take away the hope of families whose loved ones may be being sustained by such medical expertise, but none-the-less we need to ask how right this is. Are ‘living wills’ ethical? Some patients facing terminal illness often make it known to doctors or loved ones that if they go into a coma or into cardiac arrest, they do not wish to be resuscitated to face a life of increasing pain and debility. These‘living wills’ are now legal – are they ethical?There are also a number of issues related to the elderly. The next area of great debate is the quality of life, not just for the terminally ill, but for the elderly. Western society is going further and further down the route that assesses the elderly to be a burden on society,on its funds, its resources and its time. What does the Bible say about old age?
Unlike standards in western society today, we are constantly taught in the Bible to show honour to the elderly, to respect them, provide for them and dignify them. ‘Thou shalt rise up before the hoary [white] head, and honour the face of the old man, and fear thy God: I am the LORD’. Lev.19.32; ‘The hoary [white] head is a crown of glory, if it be found in the way of righteousness’, Prov. 16.31. African society honours the elderly and sits at their feet to learn their wisdom; western society casts them to one side and thus dishonours God.
The Bible reminds us of two seemingly conflicting responsibilities. In Second Corinthians chapter 12 and verse 14we read, ‘The children ought not to layup for the parents, but the parents for the children’. That teaches us that parents are responsible to look after their children when the children are dependent upon them. Yet, on the other hand, we are told in First Timothy 5 and verse 4, ‘But if any widow have children or nephews, let them learn first to shew piety at home, and to requite their parents: for that is good and acceptable before God’. In other words, destitute widows should become the responsibility of the local assembly, but if they have family the family is responsible to look after the parents. This ‘is good and acceptable before God’. As children grow and become independent, so parents will age and become dependent. Then the balance of responsibility changes. Children should look after their aged parents,respect them, honour them and care for them. The aged should not be a burden and any society that seeks to hasten them into their graves, and any children that neglect their parents, are sinning before God.
Someone has well written, ‘Obedience to the fifth commandment implies that we must learn to support the elderly, the sick, and the disabled too, so that their burden is lighter and our society becomes caring and not careless. The tragedy of post-modernism lies in its passion for ‘quick-fix’ solutions. We dispense with unwanted children by fast abortions, inconvenient marriages by fast divorce, and we would like to offload unwanted parents and ‘sufferers’ by a fast exit, all with the casualness with which we satisfy our appetites by fast food’. None of this is God honouring. Let us, as believers, follow the standards of the Bible.