Terminal illness often involves periods of extreme pain and while modern palliative care can largely ease the physical pain, it cannot do so completely. It is only human to feel empathy with those who suffer. Furthermore, people with extreme disabilities can feel hopeless and consider that they have no real quality of life. And so it is understandable that occasionally some sufferers will cry out for help to end their misery. Their despair and anguish is very real, and we cannot minimise or trivialise their pain. Euthanasia is the proposed answer to their despair and suffering. In my mind, it is inevitable that euthanasia will soon be legalised in this country and in many others. It has been legal for many years in the Netherlands and Belgium and the reason most western nations will follow their example lies in their commonly held assumptions about who man is and about the way right and wrong should be decided. After all, even suicide was long considered a crime in most countries, but changed assumptions about the how to decide moral questions has led to the decriminalising of both suicide and attempted suicide.
Since these nations no longer looked to the Ten Commandments as the basis of their moral law, but to humanist assumptions about the nature of man, these societies have overturned or contradicted previously unquestioned moral principles. Mercy killing or euthanasia was once considered morally wrong. Now a majority in many societies have rejected that position and now argue that mercy killing is a good thing to do, a good death – hence the term euthanasia.
Is euthanasia a good death?
However, is euthanasia a ‘good death’ as the made up euphemism implies? Actually proponents of euthanasia (also called mercy killing) are shying away from the term to use even less descriptive and vaguer terminology like ‘aid-in-dying’ or ‘end of life choices’. These latter terms have the advantage of eliminating the finality of a term like euthanasia. Aid-in-dying, for example, implies that the person is in the process of dying and they are just being helped in a kind and loving way to bring suffering to an end. Of course, the subject may not be dying at all, or at least in imminent danger of death. They might, instead, have many years of life ahead of them in spite of their disability or illness. Similarly ‘end of life choices’ suggests that all that is being offered are compassionate choices for the person who is about to die. The term ‘choices’ appeals to the sinful human desire to be captain of one’s own fate. Their ‘choices’ override any moral norms. Again, in spite of the implications in the new terminology, this person is not about to die. We can see how these new euphemisms developed. Older terms were not resonating with the wider communities. Thus ‘The Hemlock Society’ became ‘end of life choices’ and then later morphed into ‘Compassion and Choice’. Any reference to death is carefully excluded in the new terminology.
But is euthanasia, or whatever term you want to use for assisted suicide, really a good death, a compassionate death? In fact we could construct our own term from one Greek word for evil or bad ‘kakos’ and join it to ‘thanatos’ or death. Is assisted suicide or euthanasia a good death or is it kakothanasia, an evil death? I intend to write a number of articles demonstrating why euthanasia, or assisted suicide is really kakothanasia or an evil death. In this first essay we will consider why killing a willing victim is not a compassionate death. And as I write, inevitably, the debate over how moral principles should be arrived at will be evident. On the one side we have the moral reasoning of secularism which rejects the idea that God has revealed to man what is right and what is wrong. On the other we have the increasingly marginalised view that our moral principles should be derived from the God of the Bible, which principles are also ingrained by nature, but suppressed, in all unredeemed men. Therefore, even the claim of what constitutes compassion and compassionate action will find a different answer between these two worldviews.
Euthanasia is not compassion
The word compassion can mean many things. Its root meaning is ‘to suffer with’. To share in the sufferings of others is compassion. Compassion, to have a deep awareness of another’s pain, is also a synonym of sympathy. Compassion can lead a person to action for the sufferer they are concerned about. Their action may or may not be an outcome of compassion, but it is not compassion itself. Compassion is a feeling, an emotional experience.
Compassion and animals
We can be compassionate about, or feel compassion for persons and other creatures. There is a compassion which can be shown towards animals. Very few individuals cannot but help feel compassion for a suffering animal. This feeling of compassion can lead to killing the suffering animal if its health cannot be restored.
In fact putting an animal out of its suffering is often made morally equivalent to human euthanasia. Vets even use the term euthanasia to describe killing an animal which is suffering physical pain. But can euthanising animals be a precedent for euthanising people? If people are no different than animals and it is a morally acceptable practice to kill suffering animals, then a strong argument can be mounted for human euthanasia. Equally, based on such a premise, a strong argument could be mounted to use human beings for medical experiments in place of rats, mice and dogs. When we put it like this, we can see that while compassion towards a suffering animal might lead us to euthanise an animal, even the sternest evolutionist would not want to say that there is no moral distinction between the life and well-being of an animal and that of a human being. The evolutionist would balk at treating human beings in other ways we might lawfully treat animals, and certainly would not want to eat human flesh.
Compassion and abortion
Nonetheless, the argument that compassion can require assisted killing of human beings is widely accepted in most societies. Assisted homicide is already legal in most countries. Only six nations outlaw abortion completely.
While it is called abortion, it is really the wilful ending of the life of the unborn. Those complicit in the death of the unborn include the mother, other supporters, politicians who have legalised and continue to allow this killing to persist and those who elect such politicians, the courts and legal profession who ignore the rights of the unborn, and the doctors and nurses who physically kill the babies.
Supporters of abortion argue that compassion should cause us to permit abortions. This compassion is expressed towards the unborn child and towards the mother. If scans show that the child might be disabled, or a Down’s syndrome baby, it is deemed an act of compassion to kill the child. Similarly if a mother claims mental health issues will cause her to suffer if she does not abort the child; or if she pleads poverty and cannot support the child, then compassion towards the mother’s circumstances is considered reason enough to abort.
Nonetheless, the reason abortion has become morally acceptable is because the unborn child is not considered a human being, but merely a foetus until it is born.
Compassion and choice
It is no coincidence that just as proponents of abortion claim to be ‘pro-choice’, ‘choice’ has become a term of choice for advocates of euthanasia. One apologist for abortion wrote in the New Statesman:
‘As a single, precariously-employed young woman, the idea that I would have no choice over whether to continue a pregnancy horrifies me. It makes me feel as though something fundamental about myself is being violated. That’s why the dominant argument in favour of legal abortion rightfully focuses upon choice: because it seems barbaric to deny women autonomy over their bodies and lives when such a thing is medically and socially possible.’
This woman goes on to argue that abortion is a compassionate solution to an unwanted pregnancy. For example, if legal abortion is not available, women go to back-street abortionists and many have died, including by bleeding to death. If we force them into unsafe abortions we lack compassion for their well-being and life. In this argument it is assumed that it is morally acceptable for a woman to seek an abortion, and that the child has no right to live.
Compassion and euthanasia
To sympathise, feel empathy, to share in the suffering of another human being is a beautiful thing. The world is too full of selfishness or narcissism, and feeling the pain of another is far too rare. If a loved one is terminally ill and they have no hope of their situation improving, the friendship and love of others is a precious commodity. When, however, that loved one expresses the desire to have someone help her end it all and it becomes legally possible to do so, is true and fully informed compassion really behind the assistance or support for suicide?
The secularist and compassion
The compassion felt towards suffering animals is really analogous to the compassion the secularist feels towards a suffering human being. The secularist feels a deep empathy for both the physical and psychological pain of the sufferer. He also has compassion towards family members who may also want to see the suffering of a loved one come to an end.
The secularist believes that a human being is an evolved being who is only distinguished from the animals by his higher intelligence. He believes that to relieve that suffering by mercy killing (assuming the suffering person wants it to happen) is the correct response to his feeling of compassion.
The Christian and compassion
The Christian has added dimensions to his compassion. Like the secularist he is deeply touched by the physical and psychological pain experienced by the sufferer and loved ones and may even pray that the Lord would end the suffering. However, he cannot countenance euthanasia which he deems kakothanasia, or an evil death, for two reasons.
The first is that the Bible teaches him that it is morally wrong to take a life, even one’s own life. And because the Bible is the Word of the Creator and Redeemer, he cannot but decry kakothanasia.
The second is that Christian compassion sees the suffering human being as one who is not merely a body and a brain, but a body and soul or spirit made in the image of God (in knowledge, righteousness and true holiness, although that image is now defaced). He recognises that the spiritual well-being of the sufferer will not be served by assisting him in suicide or euthanasia.
There are many pragmatic reasons why euthanasia is wrong. For example, just as for a woman who has had an abortion, there is the danger of life-long regret for a relative being involved in the process of encouraging or assisting suicide. The mental health of the mother of an aborted child is often far worse than the alleged mental health of a mother who does not abort, although she does not want the baby. The mental anguish of a relative or a medical doctor who comes to the realisation that euthanasia is wrong, may well ruin his long-term happiness and well-being.
However, the point of this brief essay is to show that true compassion only exists when the well-being of the whole person is its object. It is true that the secularist has true compassion for a suffering animal when he understands that animal to be a body and a brain. But he does not show full and true compassion towards a human being, if that is all he sees a human being to be. To have a soul or spirit means that physical death is not the annihilation of a human being or the end of suffering, but the separation of the dead body and the living soul or spirit. The Christian realises that without redemption, the sufferer will not end his suffering through suicide, but that he will have to give account to God for his sins at the point of death and on the day of judgement. The Christian, therefore, wishes to see the person redeemed, and as long as the individual has life, there is hope that he or she will find redemption in Christ. Euthanasia is therefore kakothanasia to him.
Christians, in opposing euthanasia, need to be up-front with the modern secularist, and though he might not persuade his opponent, he has born witness to the teaching of Christ. The pro-euthanasia advocates are not able to say, that since they do not believe Christian teaching found in the Bible, the arguments for Christian compassion towards the sufferer are irrelevant to the discourse.
The Bible makes it clear that God has made His will sufficiently clear to everyman’s conscience, and when man suppresses that knowledge or sears his conscience, this does not release him from his obligation to obey God’s law. See Romans 1: 18-21 and Roman. 2:14,15.
Dr. Garnet Milne.