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