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October 10, 2014

Crime or Compassion?

Crime or Compassion?

When Jack Kevorkian (a.k.a. “Doctor Death”) was arrested in 1999 and convicted for murder, it sparked a debate in the United States over whether doctors should ever help patients kill themselves. Although medical professionals, ethicists, and lawmakers have long treated assisted suicide as unthinkable, public sentiment is rapidly shifting, reigniting that debate and forcing pro-life Christians to re-examine their position.

In recent years, “the right to die” has become the rallying cry for a movement convinced that human decency sometimes demands we help those in unbearable suffering to end their lives. Of course, suicide — even with assistance — is nothing new. But the idea that physicians, those under an ancient oath to “first do no harm,” should oversee and facilitate the act, is a recent development.

Before Kevorkian ever faced a judge, the state of Oregon was already leading the nation in assisted suicide with what Thaddeus Mason Pope writing in The New York Times calls its “sensible” and “fair” laws regulating the practice. Since 1997, Oregon has permitted doctors to help terminally-ill patients end their lives, imposing a strict set of criteria designed to prevent abuse and protect vulnerable patients. 

Pope, who serves as director of the Health Law Institute at Hamline University, writes that these “safeguards ensure that patients are making a voluntary and informed decision. A physician must educate the patient about all options, including palliative care, pain management, and hospice. The patient must make three separate requests (two oral and one written). The oral request must be independently witnessed by two people. The patient can rescind these requests at any time. Finally, to further ensure that patients remain in full control of the process, they must administer the medication themselves.” 

This system of safeguards, claims Pope, has allowed countless patients with terminal illnesses, who have nothing to anticipate but months of protracted dying, to finish their lives with dignity. And he cites Oregon’s laws as a model for not only the United States but for the world. 

Others aren’t so sure. Responding in The Times, Ira Byock of Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine says safeguards rarely remain in place, and in countries where assisted suicide has been legal for much longer, ominous signs are emerging. In other words, when doctors get into the business of killing, even out of compassion, it starts a societal domino effect that knocks down more walls than we’d like.  

“Last year in Holland, where voluntary euthanasia is permitted,” writes Byock, “over 40 people sought and received euthanasia for depression or other mental illness.”

Opponents of physician-assisted suicide have long pointed out that those experiencing severe pain and especially those suffering from mental illness cannot make rational end-of-life decisions. Often, they’re vulnerable to suggestion or manipulation, effectively putting them at the mercy of others whose lives aren’t at stake.  

 And in Holland, adds Byock, patients have begun treating suicide as an escape from even the most benign conditions. He describes one incident in which a mother received help killing herself because of chronic ear-ringing. 

“Even the psychiatrist [in Holland] who began this practice in the ’90s recently declared the situation had gone ‘off the rails.’”

For Christians, the sanctity of life from conception to natural death is one of the foundational principles of ethics. Over thousands of years, theologians have taught that as human beings, we don’t have the authority to decide when we die. Exodus 20:13, argued Augustine, Luther, and Calvin, prohibits all murder, including self-murder. And though Christians don’t have a duty to artificially prolong life or fight natural death at all costs, honoring the image of God in all people (Genesis 1:27) means never usurping God’s role as sole giver and taker of life (1 Samuel 2:6, Job 1:21).

Further, loving our neighbors as ourselves (Mark 12:31) means opposing laws that open the door for exploitation and unjust deaths. Just as we defend the sacredness of life in its beginning, we should insist on its worth even until the last breath. God, not man, numbers our days (Job 14:5).

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