Euthanasia: Mercy or Murder?

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By Spencer D Gear

Jenny is only a few weeks old. She was born with a severe genetic disability that is incurable and sometimes causes her severe distress and pain. Rational existence for her to enjoy normal life is expected to be minimal. Should she be allowed to live or should euthanasia be performed on her?[1]

Frank is 65 years old, has cancer and no longer wants to live. Either through witnessed written instructions or witnessed and repeated oral directions, he may request a drug for the purpose of inducing his death, administered or provided to him by a medical practitioner, registered nurse or registered physiotherapist. Such is voluntary, active euthanasia. [This is contained in the “Voluntary and Natural Death Bill 1993”, which has been tabled in the ACT Legislative Assembly.]

Euthanasia supporters in Australia are gaining considerable mass media coverage. Between 1946 and 1992, the number of Australians who favoured euthanasia rose from 42% to 73%. There seems to be a ground swell of public support for the active killing of those who are terminally ill and in severe pain. However, I am not convinced those who say “yes” to euthanasia are fully aware of what they are endorsing or of the long-term consequences to a society that introduces such killing into its criminal code.

Worst cases are put forth so that it is made to appear that there is a vast amount of suffering for which nothing less than death is good enough. Yet, those who practise palliative care with the terminally ill encounter few requests for euthanasia by patients. Too often, the distressed relatives who often feel impotent, sense a lack of support, and may be encountering a financial burden, are the ones calling for euthanasia.

In spite of euthanasia being rejected twice by the government of Victoria and once by the government of South Australia, ACT Legislative Assembly independent MLA, Michael Moore, tabled the radical “Voluntary and Natural Death Bill” to introduce voluntary active euthanasia into the Australia’s capital city of Canberra. However, this was the outcome:

The euthanasia question was brought to a head. In September 1996, Kevin Andrews had tabled a bill in the House of Representatives to overturn the Northern Territory’s voluntary euthanasia legislation, which had come into effect on 1 July 1996. The Andrews’ bill also applied to the ACT and Norfolk island. It was widely criticised in the ACT by those in favour of voluntary euthanasia and by those who opposed such,[2]

In a public debate with Mr. Moore, I confronted his secular humanist presuppositions that seem to be driven by an almost utopian desire for autonomy–to be in control of what happens in one’s life. See a copy of my debate, “Voluntary Active Euthanasia: A Compassionate Solution for Those in Pain?”  My submission to “the Senate Standing Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs on The Rights of the Terminally Ill (Euthanasia Laws Repeal) Bill 2008” is HERE.

WHAT IS EUTHANASIA?

Euthanasia is “the intentional killing of a person, for compassionate motives, whether the killing is by a direct action, such as a lethal injection, or by failing to perform an action necessary to maintain life.”

“Voluntary active” means that the person asks to be killed. It must be realised however that those who promote euthanasia do not use the word “kill”, but it is the only accurate word to describe the reality of what happens. Besides, it is the word the law uses.

People are sometimes confused by the current debate on the legality of disconnecting mechanical life support systems or the patients’ rights to request that no extraordinary means be used to keep them alive when all hope of physical life seems to be gone. This is often called passive euthanasia, but it is not euthanasia at all. This is the common law right of all Australians to decide which treatments they want to have for themselves.

I do not want to suggest that decisions are easy when it comes to the termination of treatment of the terminally ill. When a disease is at the stage where no known therapy is available and death is imminent, in spite of the means used to date, then any treatment that would maintain “only a precarious and burdensome prolongation of life” may, I think, be discontinued or not instituted.

However, as a committed Christian, I do not believe that euthanasia is a compassionate solution to those in pain, for a number of reasons.

 

IT IS AN ATTACK ON THE SOVEREIGNTY OF GOD

We must answer two fundamental questions: (a) Who are human beings? and (b) Whose right is it to terminate human life?

Human beings are unique and special

God’s view is that human beings are not animals, but unique beings made “in the image of God” (Gen. 1:26-28). A doctor put it to me recently: We put down dogs, why shouldn’t we offer the elderly in a vegetative state the same?

As God’s image bearers, each of us has the capacity to be personal, rational, volitional, emotional, creative, moral and spiritual. Our responsibility is to reflect God’s character and purposes in all that we do. Human life is sacred throughout life and in all circumstances, whether one is strong, independent and healthy or weak, dependent and handicapped.

When we reduce human beings to animals, it logically follows that a whole range of horrendous evils could eventuate. God has forbidden that any life be murdered. To do so is an attack on God.There is no need for a commandment that says, “You shall not commit euthanasia.” All deliberate, premeditated killing (abortion, infanticide, euthanasia, homicide–war raises some other issues) is covered by the one commandment, “You shall not murder” (Ex. 20:13, NIV).

Any society that engages in the killing of innocent lifewill pay a grave price. When we do not respect life before birth, if affects our view of life after birth. If we do not respect the dying, it will affect our attitude towards the living. As the Bible puts it: “For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord” (Rom. 14:7-8).

Life and death decisions belong to the Almighty God

Death is an unnatural intrusion into human existence, caused by sin. We must reject any secular philosophies that want to see death and dying as a ‘natural’ transition to either non-existence or a higher stage of existence.

For the unbeliever, death is the prelude to final judgment by God Himself (Heb. 9:27). Since God warns about judgment to come, terminal illness needs to be a time of preparation of the patient spiritually and nothastening physical death by euthanasia.

The philosophy that promotes euthanasia sees people as lords of their own existence. For the Christian, life is a gift from God and the moment of death is God’s prerogative, not a human being’s (Job 14:5; Rev. 1:18).

In sickness or in health, from the womb to old age and even through the dying process, life is sacred. In a depraved society that is choosing death and violence, Christians need to be shining lights in a world of darkness. We must choose life for ourselves and others. We must love our neighbours and offer them the hope of eternal life through Jesus Christ.

WE REAP WHAT WE SOW

The clear biblical principle is that there are consequences to our actions. Australia already has innocent blood on its hands through the abortion slaughter. What will we reap if we legislate voluntary, active euthanasia? The harvest of a permissive approach to euthanasia is known from recent history and contemporary experience.

The German lesson

It was only a short journey from the Germany of 1895 when the book, The Right to Die, was published that advocated voluntary euthanasia. In 1920, The Permission to Destroy Life Not Worth Living, by a lawyer and psychiatrist, opened the floodgates and led to open discussion and legislation to permit euthanasia in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s. Then came the holocaust under the Nazis during World War 2.

What started out as voluntary euthanasia moved to involuntary euthanasia in a few decades. It was a small step from voluntary, active euthanasia to the Nazi government’s genocide of six million Jews, and an estimated six million others (without the individual’s permission).

Dr. Leo Alexander, a Boston psychiatrist at the Nuremberg trials after World War 2 (in 1946 and 1947) said: “It started with the acceptance of the attitude basic in the euthanasia movement, that there is such a thing as life not worthy to be lived.”[3]

Contemporary Holland

A modern example should rest the case against voluntary, active euthanasia. The deleterious effects are seen in Holland.

The official Dutch Government Remmelink Report of 1991[4] gives conclusive evidence of abuse. The report shows clearly that doctors are killing without the explicit request of the patient. Doctors have violated the ‘strict medical guidelines’ provided by the Dutch courts and about two percent of the euthanasia deaths are without the patient’s permission.

Not just terminal illness

The recent history of the euthanasia movement demonstrates there is no guarantee it will be limited to terminal illness for those in pain. Holland is an example of what will happen when assisted killing enters our hospitals or other medical situations. This is of such concern that a senior citizens’ group has warned that Holland’s liberal euthanasia policy “has many elderly people scared that their lives could be terminated without request”.

The British Medical Journal[5] reported that the Dutch are now considering euthanasia for those with severe dementia. Who will be next? Formerly it was the terminally ill, then the severely handicapped newborn babies, comatose patients, now those with dementia are being considered. The Dutch experience shows there is no way to limit this slide into death.

When asked on ABC radio, Canberra, about an elderly couple suiciding together, Michael Moore MLA, said: “I think it should be covered in [the] act and I think that under certain circumstances, given appropriate counselling and appropriate time to make that kind of decision.”[6]

No civilised society like ours will remain civilised if we endorse this kind or any other kind of killing or assisted suicide.

How can we say where to draw the lines? Chronic illness? Mental illness? Multiple sclerosis? Those crippled with arthritis? Persons who are handicapped? What about some of the people I counsel, such as a 16-year-old who is on drugs, severely depressed and suicidal?

The most recent review of the need for euthanasia in Australia was by the Social Development Committee of the Parliament of Victoria. The report, called, “Options for Dying with Dignity,” in 1988 concluded: “It is neither desirable or (sic) practicable for any legislative action to be taken establishing a right to die.”[7]

Dr Helga Kuhse of Monash University, Melbourne promotes “a quick and painless injection” (to kill) for a Down’s Syndrome infant with an intestinal obstruction.

Treatment of pain

It is a strange paradox that euthanasia is being strongly promoted at a time when the medical profession has made great advances in the treatment of pain.

Retired anaesthetist at Concord Hospital, Sydney, Dr. Brian Pollard, says: “Most cancer pain is well within the competence of any doctor to treat effectively. It is necessary to regard unrelieved pain as a medical emergency to be dealt with as energetically as possible and to address also the emotional turmoil which is usually present.”

At a time when there is every reason to offer caring, compassionate palliative care to the sufferer, the apologists for euthanasia want to eliminate the sufferer rather than eliminate the suffering.

The doctor-patient relationship

Euthanasia puts a death wedge between the doctor and patient. It debases the medical profession and has harmful effects on the doctor-patient relationship.

The standard form of the Hippocratic Oath that is sworn by many medical doctors upon graduation from medical school, dating back to the time of the Greeks, says:

“I will follow that method of treatment which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous. I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel.”[8]

Dr. Mark Hurwitz, president of the ACT Branch of the Australian Medical Association, in personal correspondence, has stated that euthanasia “is not consistent with AMA policy” and that the AMA supports the World Medical Association’s statement (adopted at the 39th World Medical Assembly, Madrid, Spain, October 1987):

“Euthanasia, that is the act of deliberately ending the life of a patient, even at the patient’s own request or at the request of close relatives, is unethical. This does not prevent the physician from respecting the desire of a patient to allow the natural process of death to follow its course in the terminal phase of sickness.”[9]

For death to enter the relationship between patient and doctor will violate one of the most fundamental association’s in Australian society.

THE BETTER ALTERNATIVES

The superior options are to promote life, offer opportunity for eternal life, and become actively involved in compassionate care for the dying, persons who are handicapped, and other sufferers in our society. This care should involve a competent doctor and medical team effectively treating severe pain, emotional support and caring communication from others.

We need to improve the standards of care for dying patients. The hospice movement is to be commended for its compassionate care of the dying. Such facilities with concerned staff are urgently needed. Inter-disciplinary teams are recommended, involving doctors, nurses, clergy, counsellors and caring para-professionals.

NEW ETHICS

Essentially, we have the choice between two types of ethics, humanitarian or utilitarian. The Hippocratic Oath and a Christian world view express a humanitarian ethic, where the care of people is central, regardless of the person’s condition or usefulness.

Euthanasia, in the main, promotes a utilitarian ethic where a person’s quality of life and usefulness are put in the foreground. Where this will lead is stated in the editorial of the journal of the Californian Medical Association (September 1970), “New Ethics for Medicine and Society”, which states that “in the future those people will be eliminated whose quality of life does not meet certain medical criteria, and that next to birth control there will be death control. Society will accept euthanasia, voluntary or compulsory, because the ‘new ethics of relative rather than absolute and equal values will ultimately prevail'”.[10]

At the World Health Summit in Edinburgh recently, Dr Andre Wynen, secretary-general of the World Medical Association, said, “Euthanasia for economic reasons is perhaps the most important challenge the medical profession will have to face before the end of the century. Not in the near future, but now”.[11].

Could it be stated any clearer? When the absolute standards of a loving, gracious, sovereign God are replaced by the puny, shifting opinions of fallible people, we have a recipe for disaster in society–what we have in Australia today. In my debate with Michael Moore, he stated: “I think I’m right.” On another public occasion he asserted, “I am so confident in my own view.” The shifting sands of relativism are not the foundation for a just, loving and merciful social order.

With euthanasia, life loses its dignity. It then endangers the life of every handicapped, aged or incurably ill person.

WHERE DO YOU STAND?

Allowing the patient to die his or her own death, without artificially prolonging the dying process seems to be consistent with the biblical revelation. However, voluntary active euthanasia usurps the place given to God in life and death decisions.

When I buried a person who committed suicide, the funeral director stated to me: “I thought the church was supposed to be the moral conscience of the nation.” The Scriptures put it in terms of being salt and light. Will the church make a stand for the life of God’s image bearers from conception to old age, or will we allow the “the new barbarians who know no higher law than self-interest” (Charles Colson) to lead Australia into the “new dark ages”?

Englishman David Potter, father of a child with handicaps and director of the charity, Christian Concern for the Mentally Handicapped, put it this way: “For euthanasia to receive the support of law, it would make crime respectable and compassion despicable… Our feeble, synthetic way of life would degenerate further into a pit of our own making where values are valueless, love is loveless and life is hopeless.”

Martin Niemoller, a Protestant pastor imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II summed up the need for action by Australian Christians:

“In Germany they came first for the Communists and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. hen they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”[12]

In this madness at the beginning of the twenty-first century, will you join me in affirming that people are special and human life is worthwhile to human beings and to God? The challenge is to stand up for the young and old, unborn and born, handicapped and fit, and all people of all races.

Endnotes:


[1] Proposed euthanasia legislation for such an infant has already been drafted in the Australian Human Rights Commission Occasional Paper No.10, “Legal and Ethical Aspects of the Management of Newborns with Severe Disabilities”, August 1985, pp. 55-61.

[2] Encyclopedia.com, available at: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G1-20407306.html [Accessed 2 January 2010].

[3] Cited in, “Jewish Law – Legal Briefs,” available at: http://www.jlaw.com/Briefs/vacco8.html [Accessed 2 January 2010].

[4] See Hermina Dykxhoorn n.d., “Euthanasia in the Netherlands,” available from: http://www.euthanasia.com/netherlands.html [Accessed 6 April 2008].

[5] 22 May 1993, p. 1364.

[6] Matthew Abraham Show, Radio 2CN, Canberra, February 2, 1993, from a transcript of the program.

[7] In Brian Pollard 1989, Euthanasia: Should We Kill the Dying? Little Hills Press Pty. Ltd., Bedford, UK, p. 45.

[8] An older version of the Hippocratic Oath is available at: http://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&q=cache:cEMMJ3VBVvAJ:info.library.unsw.edu.au/biomed/pdf/hippocraticoath.pdf+Hippocratic+Oath&hl=en&gl=au&sig=AHIEtbQdJbXeLW0LVt7v6vt9Ns9VXKinJw [Accessed 2 January 2010].

[9] “The World Medical Association resolution on euthanasia”, available at: http://www.wma.net/en/30publications/10policies/e13b/index.html [Accessed 2 January 2010].

[10] The Journal of the Californian Medical Association (September 1970), “New Ethics for Medicine and Society”, quoted in a letter by Dr. K.F. Gunning, Secretary, Dutch Physicians’ League, The Lancet, Vol. 338, October 19, 1991, 1010.

[11] The Canberra Times, August 12, 1993, p. 7.

[12] “Martin Niemoeller quotes,” available at: http://thinkexist.com/quotes/martin_niemoeller/ [Accessed 2 January 2010].

 

Copyright (c) 2014 Spencer D. Gear.  This document last updated at date: 9 October 2015.

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