Euthanasia has been a volatile issue for several years now, though it does not grab the headlines the way such issues as abortion, cloning, and stem-cell research do. Before beginning I should state upfront that I do not intend to delve into every nuanced situation one could conjure up, but to tackle the broader issue head on.
The problem with euthanasia, of course, is that it shows a lack of respect for human life. The claim is often made (and usually with sincerity) that euthanasia is undertaken to end the pain of the terminally ill, to put them out of their misery.
The Problem of Suffering
There is a tangental philosophical/theological issue that could be explored here – namely the purpose of suffering. I will not, for the sake of length, delve into this subject except to suggest that it is only within the context of a theistic worldview that pain and suffering can have any meaning at all. Without a belief in a God who exists and actively exercises sovereignty over the universe, there is no purpose to anything at all.
The atheist, for example, can only view suffering (or babies for that matter) as completely random and pointless. But the Christian can see pain as at least carrying some greater and higher purpose. That’s why James, in the opening lines of his epistle, encourages the church to “consider it pure joy when you suffer trials of various kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance,” which goes on to produce maturity and completeness.
The idea that God uses pain may, to some, seem to make God cruel. But when you think about it, the idea that pain can have a redemptive and ultimately beneficial purpose in a person’s life can be a great source of encouragement and help in times of need. And this is not just spiritual opium – it is biblical truth. The New Testament in particular, written in large part to encourage and equip those suffering persecution, is replete with exhortations to this effect.
Utilitarianism and the Commoditization of Human Life
Moving on: How, you ask, does a desire to end the pain of those who suffer from terrible and terminal diseases and conditions actually betray a lack of respect for life?
While this is not overtly a part of the mindset, the truth is that it betrays a utilitarian approach to human life – meaning that it is valued and viewed in terms of its usefulness. By contrast, the biblical worldview gives the utmost respect to human life, believing that it inherently posesses great dignity and value because humans are made in the very image of God. The creation account in Genesis 1, for example, is written in such a way that it is apparent the human beings are the pinnacle of creation, because they alone are made in God’s image.
In the utilitarian mindset, by contrast, human life becomes a commodity like anything else that can be used or discarded depending on if we need it, want it, can use it, etc. The euthanasia debate is often couched in this kind of terminology.
When people are past their usefulness we do not afford them inherent dignity and respect as human beings; instead we stick them in nursing homes and begin talking about “ending their misery.” It is not a big leap from there to snuffing out the life of those with certain disabilities, especially mental disabilities like Down’s Syndrome.
Is it difficult to imagine a day when insurance companies will decide to pay for euthanasia for people of a certain age or suffering from certain kinds of conditions, and refuse to pay for treatment for those who won’t go along with this much cheaper process? (Or to mandate abortion in cases that certain conditions are detected in utero? It’s terribly frightening but no longer requires a huge stretch of the imagination, I think.
The Issue is Worldview
Do we value human life as having inherent dignity bestowed by God? Or do we view human life as something less than that?
Do we view human life as nothing more than a collection of molecules and particles that have, through random and chance mutations over zillions of years, evolved into human life? The latter is the view of Naturalism, the belief that the universe, that matter, is all there is.
If such a view is correct than indeed there is no intrinsic value to anything at all, human life, animal life, the environment, etc. Neither is there any meaning or or purpose to anything in this world, including your life (and mine).While there may be people who profess to believe that, very few actually live that truth out practically. They believe that they have meaning. Peter Singer, an infamous Princeton ethicist who advocates infanticide and euthanasia along the lines discussed above, reportedly visited his ailing elderly mother every day to care for her. Ironic, eh?
The December 12, 2004 edition of the Times of London quotes Baroness Warnock, whom it labels Britain’s “leading medical ethics expert” (I wouldn’t know), as promoting this kind of agenda across the pond. She suggests that elderly people who can no longer care for themselves should voluntarily submit to euthanasia so that they will not be a financial drain on their families.
At least the Baroness, aged 80 incidentally, is consistent when she says, “If I went into a nursing home it would be a terrible waste of money that my family could use far better.”In keeping with her theme, she also suggests that parents of premature infants should be held liable for charges (normally government pays for healthcare in Britain) incurred by using life-support machines if doctors “write off their chances of leading a healthy life.” She says, “Otherwise it will be an awful drain on public resources.”
Her ideas are scary on multiple levels.
The first question to ponder is the question of who is to determine what it means to live a “healthy” life. Presumably Down’s Syndrome kids are out, as are those with other birth defects. What if a child is born with a cleft palate? There are a thousand “what if’s” we could ask as we walk this road to infanticide. And they are all pretty ominous.
The other issue here, both in dealing with Warnock’s ideas regarding premature babies and frail senior citizens, brings us back to the commoditization of human life. In that context, human life, far from being inherently valuable, is becoming another commodity in our market-driven culture. Lives that are a drain on resources, whether of one’s family or on society in general, ought to be extinguished. You are only valued to the extent you affect the bottom line.
The biblical picture is far different. Human beings posess special meaning and value, being uniquely made in the image of God (Genesis 1:27). As such human life is to be revered and respected (cf. Gen. 9:6). Each human life matters to God…. but not necessarily to Barroness Warnock and those who accept her worldview.