The Right to Die
Kim, a nine-year-old little girl suffering from birth with a nerve and muscle disease, came to the hospital for surgery on her jaw. After the surgery, Kim didn’t regain strength. Days went by, and she couldn’t breathe without help from a mechanical ventilator. After five days, the youngster’s troubles took a terrible turn: When the ventilator tube was removed from her throat, she suffered cardiac arrest. Resuscitation took a long time and lack of oxygen caused severe damage to the girl’s brain. The next five days were crucial: When tests showed how serious the damage was, Kim was moved to the pediatric intensive care unit. Kim showed no signs of coming out of the coma. Finally, eleven days after the operation, Dr. Chang called together Kim’s pediatrician, an anesthesiologist, and a pediatric neurologist. They agreed: There was no evidence that Kim would ever regain consciousness.
They talked with Kim’s mother who agreed to a “Do Not Resuscitate” order. If Kim’s heart stopped again, nobody would try to revive her.
Four days later the same four doctors met. It was a solemn gathering. The neurologist confirmed “profound, irreversible brain damage,” and suggested that life support was no longer an appropriate treatment. Kim’s mother agreed, and the next day asked Dr. Chang to withdraw the ventilator. About 4:00 pm Dr. Chang complied. As often happens, Kim went right on breathing, but raggedly, gasping for air. Although Kim showed no signs that she could feel pain, Dr. Chang tried to ensure her comfort with regular doses of painkilling medications.
As the evening wore on, Kim became very pale; her lips turned blue. But the hard part was her breathing. Doctors call it “agonal” breathing. Even though she was comatose and heavily sedated on top of that, the pattern of hoarse gasps gave the impression that the little girl was suffering. Kim’s mother became more and more distraught as the night dragged on. Finally, at 1:00 am, she asked the resident on duty to give Kim a large shot of “something” to end the suffering. The resident refused a deliberate life-ending act, but he did step up the painkilling medication. He ordered morphine to be given as often as every fifteen minutes, at the request of either the nurse or Kim’s mother. Still, rasping, gasping breath filled the dim bay of the ICU.
The next morning, before she could get her coat off, Dr. Chang was confronted by a nurse, pleading that the doctor “do something” for Kim. The doctor found the girl “ashen with agonal gasping.” Kim’s mother then said she “couldn’t take [Kim’s] suffering anymore” and implored Dr. Chang to “please do something to end this.” Dr. Chang stepped up the doses of Fentanyl and Versed. There was no change.
Again the mother, weeping, standing beside the little girl who had suffered almost from the day of her birth, pleaded: “Is there anything you can do?” Dr. Chang said, “Well, I suppose we could use potassium.” Almost before the sentence was finished, a nurse was filling a syringe with potassium chloride. It’s a substance usually given to patients with dangerously low potassium levels, but a large, rapid dose can cause a heart attack. A few minutes after the injection, the little girl’s heart stopped. Did Dr. Chang do the right thing?
It’s very difficult for me as a father of two boys to use that illustration. There’s not a single one of us parents here who does not love our children more than life itself. When we put issues such as euthanasia into such contexts, the discussion can become very emotionally charged.
I would like us to take the emotion out of the issue and to think about the biblical ramifications of euthanasia. The question for us must always be: “What does the Bible say?” The unchanging Word of God allows us to move through an ever-changing world in a way that honors Almighty God. “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Ps 119:105). 2 Timothy 3:16-17. We often use this text to speak about the inspiration of Scripture. Yet, do not overlook the fact that Scripture is what instructs us and trains us for righteousness.
Euthanasia is a very complex subject, and the moral decisions can be very murky and difficult–especially, since some types of euthanasia are morally acceptable and others are not. So, first, let us define terms. “Euthanasia” comes from two Greek terms—“eu” meaning “well” or “good” and “thanatos” meaning “death.” The idea is “good death.”
- The first distinction we need to make is between voluntary and involuntary euthanasia. Voluntary euthanasia refers to cases where a patient requests death or grants permission to be put to death. Involuntary euthanasia is when someone is put to death without requesting it or granting permission.
- We also need to distinguish between active and passive euthanasia. Active euthanasia is taking some purposeful act to end a life–like in the opening illustration. Passive euthanasia is the withholding or refusal of treatment to sustain life. I think there is a BIG moral distinction between active and passive euthanasia; I would not view the removal of artificial means of life support as morally wrong, but I would view ending someone’s life as morally wrong.
- We also need to distinguish between direct and indirect euthanasia. Direct euthanasia refers to cases where the individual carries out the decision to die. A friend of mine tells of a case in a congregation where he was preaching; an individual was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor. The man left the doctor’s office, went home, and committed suicide. Indirect euthanasia refers to cases where someone else carries out the decision.
What biblical principles apply to this issue?
There is Sanctity to Life
All humans–regardless of their physical condition–have value, for they were made in the image of God. “God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen 1:27). “In the day that God created man, He made him in the likeness of God” (Gen 5:1). Sometimes euthanasia is supported because people say, “He/she doesn’t have any quality of life.” That may be true, but one’s quality of life has absolutely no bearing on the sanctity of life; human life is sacred, for men are made in God’s image. There is not a one of us who would want to live bed-ridden, knowing that we were in this world and having control over nothing. But, that is a side issue–it doesn’t give us a right to destroy life made in God’s image.
Murder is wrong. Both testaments teach us sanctity of life in their prohibitions against murder. “You shall not murder” (Ex 20:13). “The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not bear false witness,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and if there is any other commandment, are all summed up in this saying, namely, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Rom 13:9).
Killing, of course, is not always wrong. Capital punishment and war are not inherently immoral. Notice this statement from Paul as he’s speaking about the government: “He is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil” (Rom 13:4). Although the government has the right to kill for crimes and in war, you and I have no right whatsoever to put to death–life is far more sacred than that.
The case of Saul’s death speaks volumes against mercy killing. 2 Samuel 1:5-16. Saul had fallen on his own sword (1 Sam 31:4) and was dying. What was wrong with this Amalekite’s helping Saul die? Life and death were not his to give and to take!
There is a Very Good Slippery Slope Argument
I don’t typically worry all that much about “slippery slope” arguments. If activities are permitted by the Lord, I don’t believe we should worry about participating in them. However, when activities are sinful, I believe very good “slippery slope” arguments can be made.
Once society determines that terminally ill patients and those without a good quality of life can die, where will we stop? Would society then allow the elderly to be put to death? What if the elderly were a burden–what if they had to be bathed, changed, fed, and medicated–could we then put them to death? Would society then allow the mentally handicapped to be put to death? What if a child is born with Down syndrome? Should he/she be killed? Who would determine who got to live and who had to die?
The Nazis began with “mercy killing” and they attempted to exterminate the Jewish people. Let us not go down that road!
There is Value in Suffering
Those who support euthanasia seem to suggest that there is no value in suffering; that suffering–in and of itself–can produce no good. When suffering becomes too great, individuals should be allowed to end their lives.
The Bible, on the other hand, teaches that there can be great value in suffering. The Bible does not say that suffering is inherently good, but the Word does teach that good can come from suffering. Romans 5:3-5. 1 Peter 1:6-9. “I take pleasure in infirmities, in reproaches, in needs, in persecutions, in distresses, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor 12:10).
Several individuals have accomplished great things in spite of their suffering, and in some cases, because of their suffering. “The Messiah” was composed by Handel, who was suffering from a paralyzed right arm. Helen Keller wrote, “I thank God for my handicaps, for through them I have found myself, my work, and my God.” Let us look at suffering, not as something wonderful and great, but as an opportunity to grow to become more and more like Jesus!
We Need to Think about the Christian Perspective on Life and Death
Those who support euthanasia tell us that death is a natural part of life, and that we ought to embrace death when the time comes. Death is not natural; God did not intended man to die; death is in this world because of sin. Death was part of the curse given to Adam: “In the sweat of your face you shall eat bread Till you return to the ground, For out of it you were taken; For dust you are, And to dust you shall return” (Gen 3:19). “Just as through one man sin entered the world, and death through sin, and thus death spread to all men, because all sinned” (Rom 5:12).
God, not man, controls life and death. “Since his days are determined, The number of his months is with You; You have appointed his limits, so that he cannot pass” (Job 14:5). “To everything there is a season, A time for every purpose under heaven: A time to be born, And a time to die” (Eccl 3:1-2). I wonder if this doesn’t say something about the advance of medical science. Medical science has advanced to amazing levels–medical professionals are able to do much to prolong life. But, I wonder if sometimes they don’t do too much to prolong life–medical professionals can keep someone breathing and his heart beating for years on end, but I seriously wonder if that’s what God intended.
Hell ought to say something about euthanasia. The thinking often is, “Let’s give this person a dose of something to end his suffering.” Yet, if that person dies outside of Christ, are we really ending suffering or is that person’s suffering just beginning? You know the suffering of hell is quite intense. “The Son of Man will send out His angels, and they will gather out of His kingdom all things that offend, and those who practice lawlessness, and will cast them into the furnace of fire. There will be wailing and gnashing of teeth” (Matt 13:41-42). Sinners “shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night” (Rev 14:10-11). Robert Ingersoll, the famous atheist, said that the possibility of hell was the greatest argument against euthanasia.
What should be done with those who are suffering in their final days? We ought to extend every type of comfort we can. That individual should have the best pain-killing medications possible. “Give strong drink to him who is perishing, And wine to those who are bitter of heart. Let him drink and forget his poverty, And remember his misery no more” (Prov 31:6-7). When an individual is in the last stages of life, what does it matter if he becomes addicted to high powered pain-killers? Let that person be comforted.
That individual should receive great care from the church. “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). When individuals are suffering in their final hours, we as a church can do so much to comfort them and their families. Let us provide that comfort!
What about the removal of life support? I think we can all see a huge difference in allowing a person or ourselves to die and causing a person or ourselves to die. There comes a point in life where artificial life support is going to keep a heart beating for a while longer, but medicine can do no more; there is no hope of recovery.
Individuals in Scripture did not love life so much that they were willing to do anything to preserve life. Remember what Jesus told Peter, “Or do you think that I cannot now pray to My Father, and He will provide Me with more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt 26:53). I understand that Jesus was dying for a different reason than any of us and that a refusal to die would have been a refusal of God’s plan. Yet, I simply want to show that Jesus understood that life could be given up, and that a decision to allow oneself to die is not immoral. When Stephen was stoned, he showed no signs of attempting to escape–Again, he died a martyr’s death, and I doubt any of us will. But, Stephen understood death had come and he did not try to escape it.
Although none of us have been in this situation ourselves, I would dare say that there comes a point in one’s final days that death is seen as a comfort. “For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Phil 1:21). A couple at Owingsville, Kentucky, where I preached for a few years, had a son to die of leukemia when he was 18. Mark was a faithful Christian, and he understood as much as an 18-year-old could about what was happening to him. John, his father, told me that in the final days, he prayed for Mark to go ahead and die. Did he want his son to die? Of course not, but he understood that comfort could come to Mark in death.
I wonder if sometimes individuals are on machines but their spirit has left the body. If a person is brain dead and on machines, I really wonder if the spirit hasn’t already returned to God. My opinion is that it has, and that person, according to the biblical definition, is dead.
The hope we have as Christians isn’t simply that our suffering will end when we lay down this body of flesh, but that we shall receive new bodies at the resurrection. 1 Corinthians 15:20-23. Let us place our hope on the resurrection of the dead that will occur at that final day! Do you have that hope?