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Assisted Suicide: Is It Ethical? Or Murder? Or Both?

Medicine, Hand drawingI know it’s a highly-charged topic.

And it’s in the news. Recently CTV reported, “The Supreme Court of Canada has unanimously struck down the ban on providing a doctor-assisted death to mentally competent but suffering and “irremediable” patients.”

Some will remember 1993 when 12-year old Tracy Latimer, severely disabled by cerebral palsy, had her life taken by her father Robert. It was called an “act of mercy” by many. And I know many agreed. The next year Latimer was convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment with no eligibility for parole for ten years.

Maybe you know someone who has suffered terribly. I’ve known a few. And each situation is different. But I wanted to blog about this because I feel that there are some very serious considerations absent from the debate.

No, I don’t pretend to have all the answers.

But I’ve got some good questions.

The question I posed in the title of this blog may be best answered by another:

Who does life belong to?

One group says that it’s our life so it’s our choice. But as a Christian, I know that life doesn’t actually belong to me. Or you.

All life belongs to God. He is it’s Author. So as a person of faith, any taking of life is actually a crime against God. He imprinted every human with own image (Genesis 1:27). That’s why suicide or assisted suicide, in my view, contravenes the commandment, “You shall not murder” (Exodus 20). It’s a crime not only against another person (even if it is yourself—you’re still a person), it’s a crime against God.

I realize that there is illness and despair, and we must do our best to go all out in love for one another. (And that’s a big calling.) But a part of how we live out that love on the ground is to honour God’s vision for life.

In his new book Vanishing Grace, author Philip Yancey writes, “Love cannot really exist without an object to receive it.” He was talking about how it seems crazy that God has given us broken humans some significant responsibility for his world and each other. But love can only become real when it has an object. And that’s no mistake.

But what about dying with dignity? Isn’t that loving too?

As a pastor I’ve seen many people die. And for those of you who have walked with people toward the end of life, it is often not pretty. This is made more extreme by those enduring great suffering.

I sometimes hear comments such as, “That’s not them anymore.” This comment is often in reaction to a person not being conscious, or enduring mental or physical breakdown.

But here’s the thing: They actually are there. They are as every bit “there” as they ever were. But if we only think life has dignity when we have clear lungs, a smile, a strong pulse, and are otherwise “well,” we have wildly underestimated the character of human dignity and person-hood.

In his book Becoming Human, Jean Vanier, the founder the L’Arche communities which bring together those with intellectual disabilities and their caregivers to share in relationships and activities of care, writes that “all humans are sacred, whatever their culture, race, or religion, whatever their capacities or incapacities, and whatever their weaknesses or strengths may be. Each of us has an instrument to bring to the vast orchestra of humanity…”

Suffering does not take away dignity.

Suffering does not take away hope.

Suffering does not have to be the final word.

Suffering is always linked with our enduring sacredness. We are image-bearers.

I know some will disagree with me. And if you don’t really believe in God, or that the Bible shines any light on modern existence, and if you feel the sole purpose of our time on this little planet is “health and happiness” (whatever that means), we might struggle to find common ground on this one.

But in my view, assisted suicide isn’t just about the perceived “needs” or “desires” of suffering individuals (or the families who care for them); it has to do with how we answer this question:

Who does life belong to?

I think it belongs to God—and that the issue of assisted suicide is absolutely tied to the sacred dignity of every human; a dignity which is not diminished by one’s capacities or incapacities.

Surely many questions linger:

  • What about a person whose mental ability to make the choice is in question, or debatable by the family?
  • Who says what kind of illness is “irremediable”?
  • How does this intersect with a doctor’s own ethics and oaths for the preservation of human life?
  • How do we define and quantify the value of a human “life” as a society?

Those questions are huge. And the route to chaos seems to be shortening.

A part of my concern is that in a culture which prides itself on progress but which seems to be spinning in a hundred dizzying directions, death and suffering are so frightening (and, many think, without meaning) that we want to control them. But that is not possible no matter what we do.

The famous composer, doctor and theologian Albert Schweitzer came up with a slogan: “Reverence for life.” The energy in and behind those words was motivated by who he knew life’s Author to be.

And that changes everything.

As one scientist said, “everything that counts cannot necessarily be counted.” That’s definitely true for life.

Is it possible that those struggling with this issue and who want a suffering life to end are doing their best to act compassionately? Of course. I’m sure that’s usually the case. I’m sure that those individuals are doing their best to be loving. But my intent with this blog is to widen our scope, and focus us on what is perhaps the biggest question of all:

Who does life belong to?

I don’t really know the mind of the Supreme Court. But in my mind, life belongs to God. And in the end, he is the final Judge.

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17 Comments »

  1. I believe life belongs to God,
    Matthew. There is no question about that, but saying that, is it then also wrong to have a DNR (do not resuscitate) issued when you are near the end. I have told my family that if I was on life support they should pull the plug. Am I wrong in that?

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    • Hi Corry, thanks for your thoughtful comment. I don’t think a DNR is an issue. Life is precious, absolutely. But the difference is between proactively ending a life, and then going to extreme measures to keep a person alive when their body/mind is shutting down on its own. The key difference is “on its own.” That’s my thought on it; I hope it helps!

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  2. Yes, of course this is one of those almost impossible ethical dilemmas.but, as I see it, doctors have been given the ability & knowledge, & scientists have developed the machinery to allow life to linger ( well, a kind of life. . . another moral problem) for people who, without it, would die. Then comes the question, when do you remove that artificial means of life? Or, do you? How do you make that decision? Who makes it? The desolate family, in their grief, have to, somehow.
    Is there really any difference between this removal of ersatz life & doctor-assisted suicide to end a dying person’s indescribable suffering?
    My family has been in this valley of tears & heartbreak in this scenario when watching our own Dad die. We would have welcomed, reluctantly, a quicker, more humane method of relieving his travail.

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    • Hi Errol, thanks for the comment. I’m sorry to hear about the difficulty you went through. It’s an incredibly painful thing to watch someone you love pass away. Here are a few comments I’ll make in response to what you wrote. In your comments you talk about doctors having been given “knowledge” and scientists developing “machinery” etc. That’s all great; but it’s not God’s wisdom. Nor is it necessarily God-directed wisdom. To me, as a person of faith, that trumps everything. Part of the reason for the blog was to introduce the question, Who does life belong to? If no one really knows the answer to that, then the slope slides in 50 directions. But I think the dominant perspective needs to be that life belongs to God and is his gift, even at it’s most difficult intersections. (And especially at its most difficult intersections.) One more thought: There’s a difference in what I’m talking about and what you raise as a DNR (do not resuscitate) order. The blog is about the problems with proactively taking a life, and a DNR is about taking exceptional measures to keep someone alive even when the mind/body is shutting down on it’s own. On its own. But as you suggest, these decisions are never easy, and are best handled with great tenderness and love.

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  3. Hi Matthew, I believe ALL life belongs to God. This is why I don’t understand wars, murder, abortion, assisted suicide, death sentences. I know there is evil in this world that turns people to hate others and kill with the slightest provocation. If we could teach everyone that life belongs to God not us, maybe then we wouldn’t wrestle with all these issues. We could let God determine when someone’s life should end and we could concentrate on making life better for all. Maybe loving our neighbour as ourself would be a start.

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  4. Thanks, Matt. I didn’t mention anything about DNR orders. You are right, though. It is a different matter again. We did not issue a DNR order for our Dad. I would have done anything to have him live, not die. That’s why I say, life support gives hope, but, when that is expended, then, i’d wish for anyone that they have the quickest death possible. Help them.
    I can’t enter the argument as to whose life a body’s is. I have no idea. But, i do believe God has put us here to learn, think, invent, decide.

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    • Hi Errol, oh yes, I scrolled down and see you didn’t say DNR. I guess I thought that’s what you meant when you said “remove that artificial means of life.” I think I made a jump there… God has indeed given us a lot of responsibility! In my blog I mentioned Philip Yancey and his new book “Vanishing Grace.” Here’s what he says on page 103: “It’s like turning over a Fortune 500 company to a gang of six-year-olds.” Yikes!

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  5. Very strong and thoughtful blog, Matt. I stand with you theologically, of course. Yet I believe that when people come to the end and there is no hope for survival they should be given “comfort care” and that often means a slight bit more morphine than usual. I have no problem with that. I am troubled by this Court ruling because it includes people who are suffering from mental illness and such and now we are in the Dutch situation where if you are irredeemably depressed you can have the medical profession kill you. So whatever legislation comes out of this should be extremely carefully crafted. One should also be careful of those views which glorify suffering. I know a family in the church from which I came in Holland who refused pain medication (opiates) for their dying son because “he needed to suffer just as Jesus suffered.” The other extreme side of this debate.

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    • Hi Tony, thanks for the note. You make some great points. What is, as you suggest, an illness that is “irremediable”? And yes, what about those who are depressed etc? You ask that the legislation be “extremely carefully crafted.” I’m neither a pessimist, nor an optimist, but I don’t feel reassured that those drafting legislation would be proactively considering the question “Who does life belong to?”, or other questions which consider the profound sacredness of life, at least from an overtly biblical perspective. I’m guessing there, but I’ll say it anyway. Perhaps we’ll be surprised. And in terms of the glorification of suffering, good points. Suffering happens, but I don’t think that means it should be something we should covet.

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  6. Matthew, with you and those who have commented…how to deal with people in agonising pain and or incurable diseases that minimises quality of life is an area that pastorally we probably should not be dogmatic…it is difficult to know how I would respond if I was in situation, or ,my spouse or child, that would caused me to consider assisted death…I may not so brave or able to endure as others have. Saying this, and agreeing with you that life belongs to God…the other side of this discussion, theologically, is the Christian/biblical understanding of death…it is a force that is to be embraced, or an enemy to God and his good creation…a force that causes life to flourish, or a force that produces thorns and corruption and destruction? In either position what does Jesus’ death and resurrection say and inform the gordian knot of assisted death?

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    • Hi Rodger, thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      Yes, what we say is often put to the test when we are in a difficult situation ourselves. And as a pastor, as you are, we of course love and care for people no matter the circumstance. I think Jesus is a good example in that regard.

      In terms of the blog, you warn against being dogmatic. I certainly wasn’t suggesting that. A part of normal and healthy theological discourse is to reflect on issues of faith and life from a distinctly biblical perspective, as best we know how. (That’s been the primary way God’s people have tried to discern his will from time immemorial.) That’s what I’m trying to do here.

      You mention Jesus’ death and resurrection. As you know, a part of the meaning of his resurrection is that death is not the final word (or, at least, it doesn’t have to be). In terms of the last part of your comment, I don’t really follow; you make some statements and pose some questions. So I’m not sure where it ends up. But perhaps you could clarify a bit; that would be great and then I could respond a bit more in full. From what I read, however, I’ll make this comment: that death and live can have both good and bad qualities. How we view them all is in part determined by our understanding of God and his will. Thanks, Rodger! I appreciate your thoughts and care.

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  7. Hi Matthew…I feel I am hate for the party…again. Re: my comment to your blog…I did not intend to deem your writing as dogmatic…it was not…my comment was a generic positional comment as to I think this issue ought to be approached, at least with the people we serve and know. Re my questions…again that is a method that I use to think and discuss…perhpas not the best in a media like this. I think I wanted to point out several things
    1. first, death, in whatever form and means it takes is foreign to God’s good creation, it is an enemy that as Christians we know is defeated through the resurrection of Jesus, and its final destruction and power to corrupt God’s good creation is yet to be. This is a basis position I believe we need to hold, lest death become accepted as a good thing, or at least a means to an end- that is whatever conception we may have of life after death (if we hold to such a belief); it is a means to an end, but that means and ends is not centred in God’s good creation, nor his intend and purpose (I would say it is demonic).
    2. The second thing that I will say, following from the above, is that assisted suicide, like suicide and other forms of deth is anti-life (which I believe you will affirm), and as such, it is anti-God. This latter point doesn’t negate that we need to be generous and merciful in our responses to persons who may decide to go down this ‘road’ of suicide, assisted or otherwise, yet we ought not adopt a cultural reading that suggests suicide, in whatever form, is natural, friendly and an acceptable means to end suffering. I f it is, than what do we say in regards to Christ’s death and God raising him to life.
    3. Thirdly, and tentatively, I tend to think assisted suicide may be analogous to divorce (I am not suggesting it is the same nor is divorce as destruction and final as assisted suicide) yet like divorce, assisted suicide tears apart covenantal realtionships…for example, God gaves us life, and we affirm this through living (particularly as we live for him walking in his ways)…an act of taking one’s life is a repeat of the actions of Adam and Eve in the Garden…a move towards autinomy from God and the move towards making our parameters as to how we shall live …thus, in a similar fashion that lifelong monogamous marriage between a man and a woman was one of God’s creation mandate, and reflected in the covenant he makes with his people, and it is broken, through divorce, not due to God saying, it’s okay…but as Jesus said, because of sin (hardness of heart). So, perhaps, in assisted suicide…it is an act of autonomy from God, an act of sin, and an act that says death is a solution for suffering.
    Yes, we still have the pastoral situation to deal with, and the ethical dilemma as to what we might do in a situation in which another person, or even ourselves, is moving towards assisted suicide, yet we still need to shape our decisions upon some basic biblical theology. To do otherwise is to be sucked into a discussion that reflects the values and priorities of the culture around us.

    A few rambling thoughts….I don’t expect you to reply. Sorry for taking so long to reply to you. Peace and grace in Christ.

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