January 19, 2018

Euthanasia: Compassion or Control?

Gordon Dickson

The issue of ‘assisted suicide’ is in the headlines in Canada, as the new Liberal government is contemplating legislation opening the nation to the ‘right’ to end one’s life. The Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, at one point insisted that his party members must vote with the government on the issue, but has since relaxed that demand. A special parliamentary committee has reported that the right to die should be available ‘with few restrictions.’ The report says this right should even extend to ‘mature minors,’ i.e. young people under 18. Needless to say, this raises concerns in many quarters, as this article shows. With these matters in mind, we offer Gordon Dickson’s article from 2005 for your consideration.

Terri Schiavo. Million Dollar Baby. The Groningen Protocol. Peter Singer. Jack Kevorkian. Wherever you look in civilized society, euthanasia is on center stage.

Jack Kevorkian, the infamous “Dr. Death,” who is now serving 10 to 25 years in a Michigan prison, assisted 69 patients in murdering themselves.

Dutch doctors at Groningen recently put forth a policy to routinely advocate infanticide.

Peter Singer, Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University, justifies euthanasia by making a distinction between human life and “personhood.”[1]

The films Million Dollar Baby and The Sea Inside, affirming strong pro-euthanasia messages, received Oscars at the recent Academy Awards.

At the heart of this ethical storm are patients such as Terri Schiavo, a victim of brain damage. In late March, Congress and the judiciary were locked in a tug-of-war over Terri’s feeding tube.

How did these changes in society come about? The modern “right to die” movement manufactured the term “euthanasia” (to mean “good death”). Then it welded euthanasia and compassion together with the slogan “death with dignity.” Now, the “good death propaganda” has become a shield to encourage suicide, physician-assisted suicide, and infanticide; it represents “controlled death.” When those who hold to Biblical absolutes confront the euthanasia movement, they must practice what they preach. They must demonstrate that human control over death does not result in “death with dignity.” Believers must also demonstrate Biblical compassion for the dying. Christians will make a major impact on society by practicing Biblical compassion for the dying while rejecting a godlike control over death.

Death and Life

The euthanasia movement emphasizes godlike control rather than genuine compassion. Euthanasia has been practiced for centuries, but modern technology has forced our society to reexamine its values. The weapons developed to battle disease and prolong life are now being manipulated to tear apart our moral fabric. To apply “right to die” values to the evils of dying, advocates have redefined death and life. Physical death, which was once understood to involve the permanent dissolution of the organs and tissues necessary to sustain life, has taken on new meanings. For instance, “death” has been redefined as “brain death” indicated by machines that monitor activities in the brain.[2] “Life” has also been reclassified. In the eyes of the euthanasia proponents, it must mean more than mere survival; it must mean a good “quality” life. This perverse approach has been used to end the lives of the infirm as well as infants. For instance, “according to Professor Singer, ‘a period of 28 days after birth might be allowed before an infant is accepted as having the same right to live as others.’”[3] This isn’t compassion for life; this is contempt for life. Where will this lead our society? It will rip the “civil” right out of civilization.

Going Dutch?

It is precisely this sort of thinking that led to the recent Groningen Protocol in the Netherlands. This is the formalized procedure for killing disabled infants at the Groningen University Hospital—infants “with a hopeless prognosis who experience unbearable suffering and for whom a very poor quality of life with sustained suffering is predicted.”[4] Who decides that suffering is “unbearable”? Apparently, every man does what is right in his own eyes. Recent news reports indicate that Dutch doctors believe that there are five unreported infant murders for every one that is reported.[5] This is because “virtually every guideline established by the Dutch to regulate euthanasia has been modified or violated with impunity.”[6] Herbert Hendin has shown that “the Netherlands has moved from assisted suicide to euthanasia, from euthanasia for people who are terminally ill to euthanasia for those who are chronically ill, from euthanasia for physical illness to euthanasia for psychological distress, and from voluntary euthanasia to involuntary euthanasia (called ‘termination of the patient without explicit request.’)”[7]

Control or Compassion?

For the last two decades in the United States, proponents of euthanasia have framed the debate by stressing “individual rights.” “It is now fashionable, in many aspects of public life, to demand what one wants or needs as a matter of rights. How to do the right thing gets translated into a right to get or do your own thing.”8 This insistent preaching of “individual rights” now seems to mean that there are no individual “wrongs.” In reality, these new definitions are an attempt to replace God Himself; they spring from a desire for godlike control: the worship of self. “‘Control and choice of when, where and how, plus personal dignity and a wish to avoid distress, physical and emotional, during the dying process are the key considerations.’”9 “Self-determination is indeed the only issue of any real substance in the controversy over euthanasia.”10 Self-determination is the worship of the “almighty, omniscient me.” This substitution of self in the seat of the Sovereign God places mankind on the slippery slope to destruction.

The “right to die”11 movement arrogantly assumes a godlike control in order to kill patients while throwing compassion aside. These proponents of controlled death have tried to conceal their deadly weapons under the velvet cloak of compassion. It’s time to snatch the covering away. Is what they offer a compassionate “death with dignity”? Let’s consider this carefully.

Euthanasia is an act of contempt, not compassion. “Compassion” (com: “with,” passion: “suffering”) literally means “suffering with.” By exalting self-centered control, those who insist on legalizing euthanasia are impatiently rushing patients toward death. “A doctor who suggests euthanasia as an option to a patient—such suggestions are accepted practice in the Netherlands— or relatives who respond too readily to a patient’s mention of euthanasia send a powerful message that they believe that the patient should not continue to live. In such cases we are not dealing with autonomy or the patient’s right to die, but with the will of the doctor and the relatives and their right to influence the ending of a life that has become a burden, or that they think is not worth living.”12 This leaves depressed, disabled people in what one specialist calls “a state of unrecognized terror.”13 This is coercion, not compassion. Attempts to assume a godlike control over death also send doctors down a poisonous path. “According to one medical consultant who observed the trials of the Nazis at Nuremberg, ‘Whatever proportions these crimes finally assumed . . . the beginnings at first were merely a subtle shift in emphasis in the basic attitude of the physicians . . . toward the non-rehabilitable sick.’”14 In addition, the methods of euthanasia are far from a “sure thing,” leaving many victims alive but disabled. Far from “suffering with” patients, euthanasia proponents have discarded compassion in the mad dash for godlike control.

God’s Control

Christians reject this godlike control by insisting on Biblical absolutes. Non-Biblical arguments against euthanasia are mushy at best.15 Like contractors stepping into miry clay in order to lay a good foundation, Christians must step into this issue in order to lay the foundation with Biblical absolutes: God made man in His image (Gen. 9:6). God owns man (Ezek. 18:4) because He is the Source, Sustainer, and Sovereign of man (Rom. 11:36). This establishes our belief in the sanctity of life. The deterioration of the human body is a direct result of the curse brought on by man’s rebellious “control” (Gen. 3:17–19). As the Great Physician, Jesus fought against sickness and death, just as we do. In addition to Christ, three more groaning observers agonize over our present plight (Rom. 8:20–26).16 God is the God of comfort (2 Cor. 1:3–11). His unique excellence can be seen even in human sickness and distress (John 9:1–3; 2 Cor. 12:1–10), and His glory will be recognized ultimately in the resurrection of the human body (1 Cor. 15:51–57).

Start to finish, God is in control. The Bible reveals that those who committed suicide (such as Saul, Ahithophel, Zimri, and Judas) insisted on being in control. By contrast, men such as Job and Samson wished for death, but submitted themselves to the Lord’s control. These Biblical absolutes lead us to what President George Bush has called “a presumption for life.” However, those who hold to Biblical absolutes have been charged with lacking compassion. How should we answer this charge?

Christian Compassion

Christians will make a major impact on society by practicing Biblical compassion.

By “suffering with” terminally ill patients, believers can testify to their Redeemer. After all, bearing one another’s burdens fulfills the law of Christ (Gal. 6:2). Is there a way to stress the sanctity of life and the quality of life near the end of life? Yes, this is the reasoning behind the modern hospice movement. The name “hospice” has become synonymous with specialized pain relief for individuals near the end of life. Those who hold to Biblical absolutes can demonstrate compassion by helping to educate physicians and others in new techniques to relieve pain. According to David Cundiff, M.D., “the absence of palliative care training for medical professionals results in suboptimal care for almost all terminally ill patients and elicits the wish to hasten their own deaths in a few.”17 In addition, the President’s Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medicine and Biomedical and Behavioral Research “emphasized in its 1983 report that excessive pain, discomfort, and anxiety are nearly always examples of inadequate treatment, not inadequate ethics.”18 This means that the euthanasia movement arrogantly assumes a godlike control in order to kill patients instead of emphasizing compassionate alternative care. And they call it “death with dignity” or “killing with kindness.” “How dignified is it, however, when a doctor, charged with care and cure, actively kills his patient or provides the means for the patient to do it himself?”19 Euthanasia advocates recognize the weakness of their position. One religious leader said, “A strong supporter of euthanasia once told me that only the hospice movement, undergirded by the religious stress on the sanctity of life, could withstand the demands of euthanasia.”20 Early indications from the Netherlands show that the hospice movement may be having an impact even there.

There are other questions that need to be addressed. Only a few can be dealt with in this brief article. Euthanasia proponents insist that it is a form of euthanasia to file a “do not resuscitate” (DNR) order when there is little or no hope for cure or recovery. This is a false charge, since no one is trying to take control over or bring about death. There are instances when it would be wrong to use extraordinary measures to extend life for a few more days just because one has the ability to do so. This author has not researched every aspect of Terri Schiavo’s case, but the debate centers on whether or not she was “alive” (because life and death have been redefined by some). This unfortunate debate has largely obscured the question of what constitutes normal and extraordinary care. Does the tube which provided food and water replace an organ necessary for life for which there is no hope of improvement? Would proper medical care with therapy have allowed Mrs. Schiavo to improve? It would be very helpful to hear from informed medical professionals who can address these issues from a Biblical standpoint.

One conclusion is clear: Christians will make a major impact on society by practicing Biblical compassion for the dying while rejecting a godlike control over death. The euthanasia movement rejects compassion in its mad dash for godlike control. By building on Biblical absolutes and “suffering with” suffering patients, believers will testify to the Lord of life.

Gordon Dickson is the pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Findlay, Ohio.

(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2005. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

  1. Singer, Peter. Rethinking Life and Death: A New Ethical Approach in Last Rights? Assisted Suicide and Euthanasia Debated, edited by Michael M. Uhlmann, Grand Rapids: Wm. Eerdmans Publishing, 1998. At times, Singer advocates animal rights over human rights with declarations such as “Not all members of the species Homo sapiens are persons and not all persons are members of the species Homo sapiens” (p. 187). Cf. Singer’s classroom strategy in “The Ethicist” available at http://www.utilitarian.net/singer/about/20050126.htm. []
  2. Ibid. Conceding this definition is dangerous. Peter Singer pointed this out in graphic terms. “They have redefined death so that they can remove beating hearts from warm, breathing bodies and give them to others with better prospects, while telling themselves that they are only taking organs from a corpse” (p. 172). More recent advances in technology have identified formerly unrecognized brain activity. See the 2005 American Academy of Neurology Journal abstract at http://www.neurology.org/content/64/3/514 and a related news article at http://www.nytimes.com/2005/02/08/science/08coma. html?oref=login (accessed March 9, 2005). There have also been charges that the Minimally Conscious State (MCS) has been frequently misdiagnosed as the Persistent Vegetative State (PVS). A 1996 article in the British Medical Journal concluded that “The vegetative state needs considerable skill to diagnose, requiring assessment over a period of time; diagnosis cannot be made, even by the most experienced clinician, from a bedside assessment” (BMJ 1996; 313:13–16 [6 July]). Available at http://www.bmj.com/content/313/7048/13. These studies have major implications for patients such as Terri Schiavo. []
  3. Canady, Charles T., Statement of the Chairman, Subcommittee on the Constitution, Congressional Testimony, July 20, 2000, citing Peter Singer. []
  4. Verhagen, Eduard, The Groningen Protocol—Euthanasia in Severely Ill Newborns, abstract, New England Journal of Medicine; March 10, 2005, Vol. 352, Issue 10, p. 959. []
  5. http://msnbc.msn.com/id/7140163/, accessed 03/21/05. []
  6. Hendin, Herbert. Seduced by Death (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1997), p. 23. []
  7. Ibid. []

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