While the issue of euthanasia has always been with us, it has become more complex in our society because of the advancement of medicine. In recent years it has especially been brought to our attention by the actions of people like Dr. Jack Kavorkin. Euthanasia has gained supporters, particularly among the young. According to a nationwide survey of the Harvard School of Public Health, results show that 63 percent believe doctors should be allowed to end the lives of terminally ill patients. In a similar 1950 poll only 34 percent agreed. And while 53 percent of those over 50 would approve of legalizing physician-assisted suicide, 79 percent of 18 to 34-year-olds would. Catholics (72 percent) favored euthanasia laws, while Jews (68 percent) and Protestants (59 percent). Initiatives urging such laws can be found in at least 20 states. California was just the latest state to accept a law permitting euthanasia.
Is this really what our society wants? I am mindful of the man who decided to commit suicide. Saturating his body with gasoline, he put a rope around his neck, tied it to a tree limb that jutted out over a river. He put a pistol to his temple. He then set a match to his body, jumped from the tree and pulled the trigger on the pistol. Missing his temple, the bullet hit the rope and cut it and he fell in the water below which immediately put out the flames. As he climbed back up the bank of the river, gasping, he said, “Wow! If I hadn’t have been a good swimmer I’d have drowned!”
We are struggling with two issues that somehow get blurred together. The first issue is causing death by doing something that brings on death. The second issue is allowing death to take place without our interference. We struggle with both because we don’t like death. And we are especially troubled by death when it is associated with pain. Even the Apostle Paul doesn’t like the term death and prefers the use of the term “sleeping.”
As Christians and as human beings we are charged with the responsibility of cherishing life. “Choose life” the Deuteronomist writes. We prefer life, but sometimes because of the quality of life we prefer death. No one argues that some people, given life’s circumstances that death would be a blessing. But what is the Christian to do?
A few short years ago, a torrential rain caused a swollen creek to wash out the underpinnings of a bridge on the New York State Throughway. One truck and several cars careened into the chasm with the bridge, and several persons were killed. A driver, following at a safer distance, seeing the horrible sight of the disappearing bridge, skidded to a stop just a short distance from the catastrophe. Reacting quickly, the driver ran to the bridge to offer assistance, if possible, to any victim, while his wife raced back up the highway with the idea of flagging down approaching cars. A large and expensive sports car zoomed toward her as she frantically waved her arms in a desperate attempt to alert the occupants to the disaster ahead. The driver, with a beautiful woman at his side, laughingly ignored the warning. Deliberately thumbing his nose at his would-be rescuer, he accelerated and hurtled off the collapsed causeway. Automobile and occupants were swallowed up in the gaping hole where once a bridge had stood. He took not only himself, but at least one other with him in death.
When Christians attempt to warn people of impending judgment which God has said shall surely come to the unrepentant, fools will mock. The church must renew her efforts to rescue the perishing and care for the dying.
We put physicians in a very uncomfortable role. All of their training, all of their oaths, call for sustaining life. Now, when quality of life becomes poor, we ask them to end our lives. The question goes beyond a legal question, it is a moral and ethical issue. The very soul of the physician is at sake, who is accountable to God. No physician wants to see us suffer and may feel like failures when they are unable to provide a cure. And yet, many patients have no hesitance to ask to die.
The problem with granting or encouraging the use of the “right” to die is that it will lead to our “duty” to die. Knowing the depravity of humanity, it is unthinkable that once old people enlist the help of friends or family, they will soon be expected to enlist such help to “end it all.” People will say to the ones dying and in pain, “You know, you don’t have to go on like this. You could end it all painlessly and quickly, and stop your own pain and the hardship on your family.”
Where does the line get drawn? Do we move beyond those terminally ill? Do we move beyond those in great incurable pain? Do we allow the handicapped to die because they are less than a full person? And who sets the standards for a “quality” life?
Our answer to this dilemma is found in whether the physician or anyone else encourages death by artificial means or allows death to take place naturally. To inject or give medicine to any human being, knowing that the end result will induce or cause death is morally wrong. Morally, we cannot deprive the sick of food or water. To withhold medical care where there is a reasonable amount of hope for survival is ethically unacceptable. The physician’s role must always be to sustain life! Neither the physician nor society can make the decision on what is quality of life – that resides with God. Poor quality of life never justifies taking a human life. We may shoot the horse, or put the dog to sleep, but unlike the animal, the human being has a soul.
Life calls for dignity and so does dying. Sometimes we overlook the pain and the suffering of our loved one just so that we can keep something tangible for ourselves. The patient does have the moral right to stop medical care. It is a courageous act to know that medical care is only prolonging death, and that while being terminally ill, make the decision to discontinue medical care. Not to have food and water withheld, but to stop taking medical treatment. To allow nature to take its course and die with dignity. When accidents and other illness cause the patient to be unconscious and there is no reasonable hope of the patient living without life support, family and physicians may make the decision to allow death to occur naturally.
In Iona Henry McLaughlin’s book, “Triumph Over Tragedy”, she tells of her struggle to find purpose and meaning in her life following the death of her daughter Jane to a brain tumor, and a few days later, her husband Pete and son Jack were lost in an accident which also left Iona near death. The sequence of tragedes were overwhelming for her. Lying in her hospital room she wondered for what purpose she continued to live. She often wished for and prayed for death and to join her three loved ones. The Easter faith she had known before came back to her in that time of deep need. And she knew, in a way that she had never known before that God was, that God was good, and that God who had walked with her in all the pain she had encountered since the tragedies was in her life then. The struggle with ‘Why?’ was the most difficult question in her life. Why would God take from her those people she loved most? It was a letter that had come to her from her minister shortly after the discovery of Jane’s tumor that helped her most. He had written then, “God is as sad over this as you are. It is not God’s will that such things happen. Amid the many circumstances of life, some things happen because we belong to a human society. But God’s will is for life to be lived to its fullest. I believe God hurts when we hurt. For Iona, the final step in overcoming her tragedy was in moving beyond the ‘Why’ to accepting that she was where she was and with God’s help and love she could move on to where God would have her be. “Whatever is, is: You cannot change it. Whatever has happened, has happened, and you cannot go back and change any of it, however, or why ever it happened. The question is not ‘Why did it happen?’ but ‘What do I do now? Some questions have no answer; you should know that by now. You should know that only fools persist in seeking the answers to ‘Why?’ Tragedy may enter your life, but — through the grace of God you can live again — you can triumph over it.