Should we refuse to hasten a death?
Imagine a scenario from perhaps 50 years ago: the doctor and district nurse are visiting Margaret, a lady dying of cancer:
She says the pain is so awful, she really can’t stand it any more; the morphine now only works for a few minutes.
The doctor tells Margaret that he could increase the dose, but it would probably send her to sleep—a very long sleep… And Margaret says Yes please, doctor; I just want to be released. She squeezes the doctor’s hand and smiles trustingly.
And so the morphine is dramatically increased, and Mary becomes sleepy but pain-free. She’s able to talk to her relatives during lucid phases. After a few days, the pain breaks through again and the morphine is increased once more. The cycle is repeated until, after the third increase, Mary lapses into unconsciousness, and dies peacefully 48 hours later.
Was the doctor caring? Yes. Was this good medicine? I think so. Was it euthanasia? Perhaps.
This is less likely to take place today. Firstly, drugs and the principles of terminal care have improved tremendously. Secondly, the media and the legal profession, and now special interest groups, have become very interested in the subject—making the approach described above well-nigh impossible.
The duty of the doctor and the nurse involves empathy; compassion; love; the ability to offer peace; sincerity; understanding; the ability to listen; being open; and not being judgmental. In no sphere is the phrase ‘tender loving care’ more apt than when looking after the dying. Michael Webb-Peploe, a Christian cardiologist, quotes a 15th century saying: “To cure sometimes, to relieve often, and to comfort always—this is the nature of care”.
The conventional Christian view that says euthanasia is simply wrong:
- It is against the will of God: ‘You shall not murder’
- Euthanasia weakens society’s respect for the value of life
- It’s a slippery slope that leads to involuntary euthanasia
- It is impossible to regulate euthanasia
- Good palliative care makes euthanasia unnecessary
- It means accepting that some lives have less value than others
- It is often difficult to be sure that euthanasia is in the patient’s best interests.
So how can there still be debate about euthanasia among Christians? Because compassion and love may need to be pragmatic; because Christian doctors face these issues frequently; because one’s views can change should one find oneself in the tragic position of suffering from an agonising/debilitating terminal illness; and for many other reasons.
God holds life and death in his hands. He has enormous compassion in these situations—for the sick, and those who love and care for them, including medical staff. He has already offered the science behind the medicines and therapies we have today, and can bring amazing peace when you turn to him.
Personally, I think we should care for the dying with love and compassion, and relieve their symptoms as necessary. If this means hastening death by a day or so, then perhaps so be it.
Pray: Lord God, I pray for all those suffering in these difficult situations, and those who care for them. Please provide them with your comfort, your peace and your wisdom. Amen.
See a webpage outlining the perspectives of different religions on euthanasia
Read an online booklet about euthanasia from the Christian Medical Fellowship
Watch Should Doctors Assist Dying? - a 25-minute internet TV programme
Read webpages on euthanasia from the Christian Medical Fellowship website
Read webpages on assisted suicide from the Christian Medical Fellowship website
Research euthanasia in Wikipedia
Visit the BBC Religion & Ethics webpages on euthanasia
Read the book Can We Ever Kill?: An Ethical Enquiry by Robert Crawford
Read the book Euthanasia: A Licence to Kill? by Anthony Smith
Read the book Living with Dying: A Guide to Palliative Care by Dame Cicely Saunders, Mary Baines & R.J. Dunlop
Read the book Sharing the Darkness: The Spirituality of Caring by Sheila Cassidy
Read the book Let Them Go Free: A Guide to Withdrawing Life Support by Thomas A. Shannon& Charles M. Faso
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