Euthanasia – Gen 1:26-31, Luke 12:6-7, Eph2:10
Tom was a lovely old guy. I met him first when he was in his late 80’s. He had finally retired from his farm and moved into Ashburton. He had been a good farmer and had done well, but the last few years of his life had been hard. First his wife had died and then his only child, a daughter, had died in tragic circumstances in a fire on the farm. Now he was left alone without close relatives. Some four or five years after I first met Tom I was visiting him in hospital. He had an oxygen mask on and was finding it hard going to get enough oxygen into his lungs which were full of fluid. He had pneumonia.
We talked as best we could. It wasn’t easy with the mask and the shortness of breath and there were plenty of shared silences, but I could sense Tom was not at ease. When the nursing staff came by with the antibiotics I could see Tom wince. I simply said to him, “Tom you would like to be left to die wouldn’t you?” With a weak nod of a head he whispered “yes”. I went further, “Would you like me to talk to the medical staff about stopping the treatment?” Again he nodded with a feeble “yes”. We prayed together, and I asked God to take good care of Tom in his journey beyond us, and blessed him. I sensed a peace in him that was not there before our conversation. I sought out the doctor and shared my observations. He in turn promised to talk with Tom. Treatment was stopped and not so many hours later I got a call to say Tom had peacefully died.
I believe this was the right course of action to take. Tom had lived a good life but now it was time to die. He was ready to die, the question of whether to prolong his life was a question that needed to be asked. I didn’t believe Tom was depressed. He had simply come to the point where it was time to call it quits. I felt the peace of God in what was being proposed, and in what eventuated. We were walking on sacred ground and I was thankful the medical team were able to switch focus from life-saving to making Tom comfortable in his final hours. If you want to be a little more technical what happened might be called passive euthanasia. Treatment was withheld that could have prolonged Tom’s life, and the process of death was allowed to proceed unhindered. I find this a different scenario to asking the doctor to give Tom an injection to end his life – process called active euthanasia. Active euthanasia I believe raises all sorts of other questions some of which we’ll explore today.
End of life issues like these are becoming more pressing as we face the reality that people are living longer and we can treat all sorts of illnesses that used to end things for us. Many older people feel useless and a burden and wonder why they keep going. Wouldn’t it be better to have a choice to end things when life for us seem to have no purpose anymore and we are just a burden? On a wider scale, as more people get older and put pressure on our health system wouldn’t it be an honourable thing to have an easy way to end things rather than keeping aged populations going, many of whom suffer physically crippling conditions and dementia. Wouldn’t it be better to facilitate death on demand?
Some of these issues have been highlighted by several cases in recent years of people being hauled before the courts for assisting loved ones to die. You may remember the case of Ian Bubbins here in Christchurch back in 2001 who in the words of the press rotted to death with cancer. More recently there was Lucretia Seales who wished to have the choice of assisted dying in Wellington. All they wished for was the right to end things when they wanted. There was also the case of Greg Nesbit who became a tetraplegic and his best mate Warren Ruscoe who helped him end things. Warren was originally charged with murder, a charge I believe was quite out of order. Yet I am also aware of risks. People who work in the hospice movement will tell us that most requests for euthanasia do not come from the dying individual, but from families. Just what is motivating these requests will vary from deep compassion to outright callousness and a desire to get the will enacted as soon as possible. Things are often not as straight forward as they seem on the surface.
These are real and difficult questions that that take us back to core questions of life. As a Christian I need to engage my faith, and for me one of the central tenets is the sacredness of human life. A fundamental idea in our way of looking at things is that life is somehow called into being by God, and human life in particular is sacred. The stories of creation found at the beginning of our scriptures underline this.
“So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them, male and female he created them”. …..”and God saw what was made and pronounced it wonderfully good.”
Life is God breathed to draw from the older creation story. We are not here just because of the chance meeting of our father’s sperm and mother’s egg, but there is something more to our being. We have a God dream within each of us that I call soul. I am created and God is my creator. I can no more create myself than I can create a rose or a daffodil. This way of looking at life leads me to see life is a gift. It is not my property to do with as I wish. It belongs to God and when I die it returns to God. The ending of life is not simply a human decision.
My life belongs to God and as such is sacred. Jesus seems to emphasise this way of seeing in many of his teachings. The number of hairs on our heads is known to God…. “See these sparrows – God cares for each of them”, he said, “but how much more God cares for you.” Stories of looking for the lost sheep or coin emphasise the value of every ‘one’. The apostle Paul writes to the Ephesians that every one of us is a fabulous piece of artwork.
This of course in the end is a matter of faith. I can’t prove this is true, but I believe this way of looking at life has shaped our society and the values of caring for others, especially those who may not be complete or who struggle in some way. At its best this way of seeing has produced people like Mother Teresa who reached out to the most hopeless useless cast offs of Calcutta and offered them care in their last days on earth. Most people of whatever religion recognise her work as revealing something of true life. What is it that touches us and says this is so right to care for the most wretched of life? Why is it that I suspect we would react with horror at the image of Mother Teresa going around with a drink of strong barbiturate to end things? We value life not because it has use in our eyes, but simply because life is sacred. A gift.
I hear the cries of a small group who say but what of the suffering some endure in death. This is hard ground to walk on. However there are alternatives. Cicely Saunders had an unhappy childhood in the UK but found her purpose in life when she fell in love with a dying man. Her eyes were opened to the need to care for those dying in a new way. She was told that if she wanted to put her views into practice she would need to train to become a doctor and so she did. Greatly encouraged by a Bible verse that had literally leapt off the page to her from Psalm 37 which said, “commit thy way unto the Lord, trust also in him; and he will bring it to pass”, she set about convincing people in high places that the care of those dying needed to be greatly improved. Firm in the belief that the final stages of life can be some of the richest and meaningful, she worked with others to develop new methods of pain control could allow a very different journey in the final stages and began what is now known as the hospice movement. This seeks to provide care for body, mind and spirit, not only for the dying individual but also for the wider family. Instead of finding an easy way out she steered a new direction that sought to enhance and value more deeply the process of dying and those going through it. The time of dying can be a good time to complete the journey of life and for those with faith to trust the deep love of God together.
When it comes to enacting laws like the current “End of Life Choices Bill” before our Parliament, I know I’m part of a small minority of about 20% who do not support it. I am happy to let the status quo remain. I know I could not administer the injection to end a life, and I wouldn’t put that responsibility on another. I uphold a belief that our lives are not ours to end, and that ending life is not purely a matter of individual choice. I don’t believe this means we should engage in heroics or endless treatment when it seems the end has come and I am comfortable withholding treatment or withdrawing life support. I find it helpful to make a distinction between passive and active euthanasia. I am however uncomfortable with the proposal that we would give responsibility to our medical practitioners to decide when someone should die and then administer appropriate medication to make this happen. I don’t think the roof will fall in if the Right To Die legislation currently before parliament is passed into law but I do see it as another step down a slippery slope towards a society where compassion and human life is less valued. I’m interested that some in the Netherlands, where similar legislation was introduced in 2002 and has had a chance to bed in, are now uncomfortable with the reality that euthanasia is becoming much more widespread with currently about 5% of deaths occurring through assisted means. I think our own legislation will be passed and it will be interesting to see how terms like a grievous and irremediable illness will be interpreted as a condition for allowing euthanasia.
In the meantime I believe our Christian faith must continue to shine a light of compassion and a light that values every person as a sacred child of God.
Dugald Wilson 29 April 2018