A Religious Approach to Voluntary Euthanasia.
The moment came upon us without warning. Our old and well-loved cat, Rami, who despite his advanced years had been fit, well, and active, was suddenly seized with a major illness. We could not define whether the agitation which he clearly showed was due to pain or to confusion at finding himself in that totally unfamiliar state, but the question was a purely academic one, for his condition was one of great distress.
Both my wife and I realised as we drove the ten miles to the surgery
that this was probably the end. Something serious had clearly occured.
It did not take our friendly and sympathetic vet very long to carry
out tests and to make a diagnosis.
It was all so quick and easy. Mr. Richards produced a form headed
"Euthanasia Consent." I signed it and by the time that
simple act had been completed the vet had a hypodermic in his hand.
Quickly checking that the consent form was in order he pushed the
needle into Rami's now unresisting body. Almost immediately our
old friend lost consciousness. Mr. Richards now had his stethoscope
on Rami's heart.
Goodbye, Rami, old pal. May your journey into the unknown be a happy one. We shall miss your happy maiow when we see you for the first time each morning, we shall miss watching you wander sedately across the lawn to the more interesting area of the shrubbery. We shall grieve for you but we could not let you suffer.
It had been so easy. Not emotionally easy, of course, for it was a wrench to lose a faithful companion of so many years, but physically it was an easy and routine proceedure. The vet had the power and the legal right, indeed a duty, to release our suffering pet from his agonies.
A few days later we visited a very elderly relative in a nursing home. There was a great deal of similiarity between her case and that of Rami. She had always believed that it was her right to die when the condition of the physical body became such that there was no quality of life left to her, and she had recorded that wish in writing, hoping that if and when this occured the law of the land would have shown mercy. Clearly that time had come but the law had not moved. It would have been just as easy to bring her sufferings to and end as it was to terminate those of Rami, but there was the great and unsurmountable barrier of legislation. In the case of our cat the law permitted us to exercise mercy, and indeed may actually have compelled it, for it is possible to argue that the legal requirement that demands of us all that we do not cause unnecessary suffering to an animal may be interpreted as meaning that we MUST use euthanasia in such conditions. But on a human being we may not carry out such a ministry. To do so is murder, even when the sufferer has made the choice for himself or herself. The most that any of us can do is to sign an advanced declaration, a Living Will, in which our attendant physicians at the time when an illness occurs which would, untreated, lead to death, are instructed not to administer any therapeutic agents. Living Wills now have the weight of law in Britain, as the courts have established that they MUST be obeyed by the attending doctors.
I am sorry to say that the Christian church, of which I have been a minister all my working life, has been one of the most vocal bodies in the battle about voluntary euthanasia, taking the negative viewpoint. In fostering and encouraging such an attitude I believe that the church has on its conscience a vast, unmeasurable, load of human suffering.
Why has the Christian church opposed euthanasia so strongly? We have no word from our founder on the subject. The euthanasia issue does not stand alone on that, there are a number of ethical positions which are not arrived at by taking a stand on the words of the Master but by a process of deductive theology working out, from what we know of his personality and opinions, what he would have said on the subject had it been raised in his day. Such an approach is fraught with danger, especially as we need to unravel the dark and sinister cloak which theology has knitted over the ages. We take this garment and place it on the shoulders of Jesus, producing a character who bears very little, if any, resemblance to the Jesus of history, the prophet of two thousand years ago who ever sought happiness for all around. We can all too easily take the cloak as the reality and draw our conclusions about Jesus from it, in which case our labours will producea false reading. The church has concluded that Jesus would have opposed mercy killing and has acted accordingly, but my opinion is that Jesus would have taken quite the opposite view and would have enthusiastically supported the cause.
The first issue which I would like to raise is the fact that while there is among Christians violent opposition to the very idea of taking the life of a human being in this way, few seem to object to the exercise of the technique in animals. Is there then some theological difference between death in a human being and death in an animal?
Many sections of the church believe that animals do not have souls. It does not therefore matter how they die. I have found that it is more or less the same group of people who maintain that God sends suffering, either as a punishment or to teach a valuable lesson to us humans, whereas in cats and dogs and other examples of the animal kingdom the disease is entirely mechanical, the result of physical conditions alone. It was because of this belief in God-sent pain that in the days of Jesus there was strong opposition to the idea of healing at all. The Gospels recount several instances where Jesus is condemned by the religious leaders of the day for healing on the Sabbath, but Doctor Leslie Weatherhead in his major work "Psychology, Religion and Healing" argues that they would have opposed healing on any day of the week, and if it occured on the Sabbath it was just that much worse. God sent sickness as a punishment and therefore to alleviate it at all was a sin. Even today that astonishing belief is still present in many people. It is apparent that when this viewpoint is held there can be no support for euthanasia, for it would involve wiping out the suffering which God had sent for a purpose.
In the days of Jesus there was a tragic event at Siloam, a suburb of Jerusalem. A tower collapsed, killing eighteen people. ( Luke, chapter 13, verse 4 ) Jesus used this unfortunate incident to make the point that their demise was not a punishment for sins. In doing this he was clearly responding to a belief which was current in his day and time and in his condemnation of the concept he stood out clearly as a rebel, one who differed from the given wisdom of the age and was not afraid to say so.
If we had no record at all of his words but only an account of his actions, it would be perfectly apparent that the whole life of Jesus was devoted to the relief of suffering. From this we may take our cue and make a reasonable assumption that he would have supported euthanasia if he were physically alive here and now with us in the twenty first century. It is often said that we would be "playing God" if we were to introduce euthanasia. I have never been happy with that phrase and it seems to me to be one widely used without consideration of its implications. If God sends suffering then it is just as much "playing God"to seek alleviation of pain from, say, a dentist, as it is to terminate a life when the motive is merciful.
In the Biblical accounts of the birth of Jesus it is recounted that he was wrapped up in swaddling clothes. These were a very tight, restrictive form of dress which had the effect of keeping the child quieter than it might be in more free-fitting garments, and the intention was to give the parents a quieter life. Gradually the use of swaddling clothes and allied forms of childwear have been outlawed, the final ending of the practice being when the English missionary, Gladys Aylward, succeeded in getting the custom banned in the last Chinese province to use it. It is perhaps ironical that after their founder had been wrapped in swaddling clothes the church which stemmed from him should have taken a major part in banishing them from the face of the Earth. Yet Jesus would not be confined in psychological swaddling clothes when he grew to adulthood. There is evidence that his parents were associated with the Nazarenes and the Essenes, but from the broad minded attitudes of Jesus it is apparent that he had broken with both of these institutions. His great spirit would not be wrapped in psychological swaddling clothes.
Another point with regard to the religious attitude to euthanasia arises out of the concept of an afterlife.. It is a basic part of Christian belief that there is life after death. If that is so then surely the practice will merely result in the recipient of the service passing on to another level of life, and if the Christian view is incorrect then surely it does not matter either way.
A major ethical questiuon arises around the issue of personal freedom. Does anyone have the moral right to deny another the relief of pain occasioned by voluntary euthanasia? I believe that none of us should have that power and that it is wrong, a great and grevious wrong, to subject great suffering on others because of what we believe. Whose life is it anyway? It is germane to note on this point that in repeated public opinion polls taken in Britain under controlled and scientific conditions, it has been shown consistently that over 80% of the British people favour a change in the present law. Among Parliamentarians the figures are reversed! Around 80% of our Members of Parliament oppose any such measures and as a result bills to legalise voluntary euthanasia have consistently come to nothing. Would that our elected representatives had more respect for the views of the people whom they represent.
At this moment thousands of people in Britain are suffering the mental and physical agonies of painful terminal illness. Many of them will have chosen the option of a controlled and merciful death under such circumstances, but this is denied them. The agonies of tens of thousands who suffer because of the refusal of their members of Parliament to allow them freewill amounts to a considerable degree of agony. Our politicians have not instigated this pain, but I hold that they are not less guilty for that. In my view it is just as bad to refuse to alleviate human need as to cause it in the first place. Over the years great suffering must have been endured by those who have been refused this basic human right, the right to die with dignity. The screams of tortured souls cry out to the politicians for mercy, and the politicians remain dumb.
I have a fear about euthanasia and it is this. I fear that eventually
it will be introduced for the wrong reason. As the demands on the
health service and the public purse increase it must surely be only
a matter of time before some politician or other realises that if
we allowed a few thousand whose lives have become a burden to slip
quietly off into the "Decent Inn of Death" then a lot
of money might be saved. This could result in lower taxes, and lower
taxes can mean higher votes for those who implement tham. Euthanasia
might be introduced from financial rather than from compassionate
reasons. As T.S. Eliot put it
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