Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Sanctity of life and Euthanasia

My older students and I are looking at Christian Ethics. (Interesting as I am the only "out" Christian in the class.) Euthanasia is a topic they will be examined on and it is a gift to a teacher who, like me, has thoughtful and capable students.
Euthanasia is, of course, currently illegal here but my students know of the laws in Oregon and that one could travel to Switzerland or the Netherlands for assisted suicide. It is also well known that much assisted suicide takes place in Britain, often with medical intervention, and the courts are inevitably hugely sympathetic to the awful moral choices people have been given by their loved ones and the tragic and painful stories of suffering and love. My students are happy to discuss the religious ethics but we inevitably wander into the philosophy of whether a secular nation should be bound by religious ethics and whether a nation which allows euthanasia is more rather than less compassionate and therefore more moral as a result.

That could be an exam question on its own. Discuss.

Pope Paul VI: "Morally this is a crime which can not become legal by any means."

Methodist Conference: "The argument for euthanasia will be answered if better methods of caring for the dying are developed."

The Salvation Army: "No one has the right to bring about death by their own decision, whether by suicide or voluntary euthanasia. The grace of God sustains the heart and mind to the end."

So the churches are generally conservative about the issue, or would it be more accurate to say reactive? After all when, in the great moral debates that have left it on the wrong side of history and the wrong side of morality, has the church been proactive?

Here is the gist of Christian thinking:
  • The Sanctity of life: only God has the authority and right to determine life and death issues.
  • God's plan for an individual may involve suffering.
  • It is more compassionate to care for the dying than hasten death.
  • Euthanasia goes against the Ten Commandments.
  • There is a wealth of difference between brain death, where a life support machine may be turned off, and a condition which may be treated effectively by medication.

Alternatively other Christians are increasingly arguing:

  • God wants people to have quality of life. "I came that you may have life and have it in abundance" isn't just soul talk.
  • God is love: stopping suffering is a loving thing to do. Euthanasia could, indeed, bring glory to God.
  • People have a right to use their God-given Free Will.
  • The Christian ethics we apply today predate our understanding of terminal illness and progressive degenerative diseases.

My students posed three questions:

  1. Would you want the option of a euthanisia - good death - if you had reached the point of no longer wanting to cope?
  2. Would you be able to support a loved one in their request for euthanasia when you knew they were serious and had passed the point of coping with terminal illness?
  3. In either case would you be able to face God and what would you say?

Interestingly, of course, no. 3 leads on to another philosophical/theological conversation on the nature of God and our personal understanding of how that God deals with us.

I think my answers would be:

  1. Yes
  2. Possibly
  3. Yes. I was trying to reflect your love.
All of this is academic until we are faced ourselves with that moral choice. God forbid that we ever are, but I would love to hear first-hand experiences.

The celebrated case here is of Diane Pretty who in 2001 went to the High Court for a judicial review of the law on euthanasia. She was 43 and in the later stages of Motor Neurone Disease. She wanted to be able to choose the time of her inevitable death and was at that stage mentally alert but immobile in a wheelchair. She wanted the court to guarantee that they would not prosecute her husband if he helped her to die.

Diane died of natural causes in 2002 before a judgement was made and therefore, not for the first time, allowing the legal system to avoid making a decision. Until the next time.

I would welcome comments. I would not welcome, however, a trite trotting out of well rehearsed Biblical arguments. We are beyond that. The Bible says "Whatever" (that's that then) won't do.