Issues in Christian Ethics (Day 3)–Euthanasia

I suppose there’s no easy way to talk about euthanasia, which explains why today’s class was so sobering. The questions being asked in the euthanasia debate and the real people that the answers impact make this an extremely difficult topic to wade through. Fortunately, our class has a good guide in Dr. Feinberg who challenged us in a lot of ways and helped us to refine our thinking about this critical issue. I’m especially grateful for this, because I know that there will be a lot of people in my ministry who will be faced with these kinds of questions and I want to be able to help shepherd them through those dark waters.

One of the most important things to understand when it comes to the euthanasia debate is what’s called the wedge argument. The wedge argument, which as been most powerfully made by Dr. Arthur Dyck of Harvard, goes something like this. When a society allows euthanasia, it establishes a principle that some lives are not worth living. In other words, you have wedged open the door to denying the sanctity of human life by establishing the principle that some lives are not worth living. The problem for those who support euthanasia is that there is no non-arbitrary criteria by which we can judge whether a life is worth living or not. You see, the issue is not whether a person has a high enough quality of life to go on living, but rather that all people possess an inherent sanctity of life that we dare not violate.

One of the uphill battles that pro-life advocates (in the abortion and the euthanasia debate) face is the supreme value that our society places on choice. This is seen in the abortion debate in the argument that a woman has a right to choose whether or not to continue with a pregnancy and in the euthanasia debate in the assertion that each person has a right to choose how they want to die. The question is, “Is it ok for you to take my life as long as I give you permission to do so?”

The Christian response to this question has to be a resounding no. Whether or not you give permission does not determine the morality of an action. Morality is determined by God and He has declared that innocent human life is sacred and needs to be preserved.

I think the most helpful part of today’s class was a set of five principles that Dr. Feinberg gave us for making decisions about when to stop treatment for someone who is terminally ill. These principles don’t necessarily give us an answer for what to do, but they do at least give us some major thoughts that should be running through our head.

I. Remember the medical definition of physical death. If someone meets the medical definition of physical death (i.e. unresponsive to stimuli, breathing has stopped, no reflexes and a flat brain wave) than it is appropriate to stop treatment.

II. Clarify your ethical theory. What Dr. Feinberg means by this is that it is important to remind ourselves that we do not make ethical decisions based on an “ends justifies the means” theory of ethics. Christian ethics are based on the revealed will of God, so what we’re looking for in major decisions about the end of life is biblical principles to guide our decision making. Remembering this will help to identify arguments that are being proposed by physicians, family members, etc. regarding medical care.

III. Be very clear on the sanctity of human life vs. the quality of human life. We do not believe that life is sacred based on the relative quality of life. Human life is sacred, because human beings are made in the image of God and therefore life is to be preserved.

IV. Remember God’s perspective on life and death. We must remember that death is not natural, it is an invader and an enemy that is to be fought against. We also have to remember that life and death ultimately rest in God’s hands and not ours.

V. Remember the biblical perspective on suffering. Suffering is not something to be pursued in a biblical world view, however suffering is not meaningless because God redeems our suffering and uses it for His good purposes.

Like I said, none of these principles tells us exactly what to do in a given situation but they do give us a lot of insight into what the Scripture teaches about the sanctity of human life and help to set our compass for navigating difficult end of life decisions.

Tomorrow we’ll be working our way through the rest of the euthanasia material, so hopefully that will answer some more questions for me.

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January 11 2012 06:34 pm | Issues in Christian Ethics

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