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Physician Assisted Suicide

autumn 2000

From nucleus - autumn 2000 - Physician Assisted Suicide [pp2-3]

But surely a patient has the right to choose whether or not they want to die?' 'It's just an act of compassion.' 'You're condemning people to remain in pain if you don't help them to die.' In a society that exalts the rights of the individual, and crucially the individual's right to choose, doctors are increasingly under pressure to acquiesce with patients' decisions regardless of their own opinions. This tension is rarely more pertinent than when addressing the question of whether or not doctors should help their patients to commit suicide.

The current situation

Euthanasia has been defined by HOPE (Healthcare Opposed to Euthanasia) as 'the intentional killing, by act or omission, of a person whose life is not felt to be worth living.' [1] Others refer to it as 'mercy killing'. Physician assisted suicide (PAS) differs in that whilst the doctor prescribes an appropriate lethal medication, it is left to the patient themselves to administer the medicine.[2] In the United Kingdom, it is legal to commit suicide but it is illegal to aid and abet suicide. Therefore, PAS is currently against the law.

The recent BMA consensus conference addressing PAS on 3-4 March 2000 involved 50 BMA members from across the country who represented a wide range of different views. Whilst the conference acknowledged that there were many differences of opinion, it concluded that PAS should continue to be illegal.[3] However some doctors do consider PAS to be morally acceptable.

The Biblical viewpoint

As Christians, we need to make an informed response to the issue of PAS. As with many ethical questions, the issues relating to this subject are far from simple; entire volumes in medical libraries are devoted to PAS. While the Bible doesn't address the issue directly, it does contain helpful principles about life, death and suicide.

Human beings are made in the image of God (Gn 1:27) and belong to God (Ps 24:1). As such, our lives are sacred. They are not ours to do with what we like. In Genesis 9:5-6, God tells Noah that because humans bear his image, he will 'demand an accounting (from each man) for the life of his fellow man.' Other passages make it clear that taking the life of a human being is wrong in the eyes of God (Ex 20:13, Ex 21:14). This applies across the board, regardless of the wishes or circumstances of the person involved.

There are seven cases of suicide in the Bible: Abimelech (Jdg 9:50-57), Samson (Jdg 16:28-37), Saul (1 Sa 31:1-4), Saul's armour bearer (1 Sa 31:5), Ahithophel (2 Sa 17:23), Zimri (1 Ki 16:17-19) and Judas Iscariot (Mt 27:3-5). In all cases except Samson (whose action might be regarded as military sacrifice) and Saul's armour-bearer, the suicide was the final act in a life which had turned against God.[4] Others may have expressed a wish to die (Job 3; 1 Ki 19:35; Je 20:7-18; Phil 1:21-26) but recognised that to take their lives would be usurping God's authority. It is God's right to give and to take life (Jb 1:21). It is not ours. This is an incredibly important principle to hold to as we are faced with a barrage of humanist arguments.

Why is PAS requested?

There is a fundamental principle at the heart of requests for PAS which, as Christians, we need to recognise and stand against – namely the belief that life can reach a point where it is no longer worth living. From a humanist perspective, such lives are worthless and unbearable and compassion demands that we help them die. People do not ask to die when they feel that their lives are full of meaning and purpose. Genuine requests are often made when people are scared of the future, when they think that their lives have become pointless, when they have lost perspective (perhaps as a result of mental illness) or when they are concerned that they are burdening society.

At this point we need to distance ourselves from worldly logic, and see God's perspective. Jesus said, 'Everyone who drinks this water (referring to natural water) will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give will never thirst' (Jn 4:13-14). Relationship with God is the only thing which can truly fulfill us. Our principle purpose in life is to know God in a life altering way. Though this we can come to see that our lives have meaning and value even in the face of great suffering.

What can we do?

To serve God faithfully amongst those who are dying, we need to ensure that we practise the best medicine that God has given us the ability to do. No patient should ever die in pain. By sensitive reassurance we may help ease many of their fears surrounding the actual process of death and help our patients find meaning in it. We need to ask God for genuine compassion and love for these individuals, so that our actions demonstrate that they do still have value. If we do this, our light will shine in the darkness as testimony to the mercy and love of our God (Mt 5:14-16). We need above all to pray that there might be an opportunity, with gentleness and respect, to help come to faith in Jesus Christ so that they can live until they die, secure in the hope of their salvation.

References

  1. Surely Euthanasia is ok?...Sometimes?...Isn't it? Healthcare Opposed to Euthanasia pamphlet
  2. Myers, K. Physician assisted suicide. CMF Files no:9. CMF: 1999
  3. BMA consensus statement on PAS, 2000
  4. Blacker, R. Suicide down the Ages. Ch 3 in Euthanasia. London. CMF, 1994


Article written by Peter Yeates

More from nucleus: autumn 2000

  • Editorial
  • Physician Assisted Suicide
  • Do Not Resuscitate?
  • News Review
  • Hinduism
  • Wanted! - Workers for God's Kingdom
  • Jesus on Ward Rounds
  • Career Choices
  • A Cloud of Witnesses - Ten Great Christian Thinkers
  • Differential Diagnosis 32
  • Know Your Bible 34
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