It is often difficult to judge someone until you have walked a mile in their shoes. As such, one of the most challenging situations imaginable would be for someone in optimal health to counsel the terminally ill as to the proper response to legal physician-assisted suicide.
In this contentious debate, ghouls in lab coats give those wracked with the most horrible of afflictions the impression that the only alternatives available are a life of agony or an end hastened by an IV drip. However, those in the middle of this debate who relish neither the prospects of drawn out pain nor speeding up death as an end in itself can provide a bit of solace in light of life’s most intense existential crisis for their loved ones and colleagues.
Many times if these cases are looked at more closely, one does not find someone that is all that eager to embrace death as they are to ease overwhelming physical and emotional suffering. The goal in such situations ought not be to prolong life beyond what was intended but rather to allow the person’s existential voyage to reach its conclusion at a natural pace in a more serene manner.
Therefore, the best course of treatment to counsel the terminally ill consists of the various options to control the pain. Rae points out that, though there are cases where pain cannot be controlled, these instances are rare and should not be precedent-setting examples upon which a comprehensive policy is based (188). It is Rae’s assertion that most cases can be controlled through a high-enough amount of medication.
Under the principle known as “the law of double effect”, medical personnel could be permitted to administer a sufficient quantity of drugs to alleviate the pain even if one of the possible side effects of the treatment is death (188). To some, this may sound little different than euthanasia; however, the distinction of motive is critical as the patient and medical professionals are not deliberately seeking to end life but rather to alleviate suffering aware of the knowledge that death might be an potential outcome. When you come down to it, this would not be all that more ethically ambiguous than any other risky but necessary medical procedure.
In his lectures for the Trinity Theological Seminary courses in Apologetics, John Warwick Montgomery astutely observed that each of us is more preoccupied about our own deaths and those of loved ones than we are willing to admit. Even for Christians, that appointment none will be able to avoid other than through Christ’s Second Coming might not spark as much apprehension if we had better assurances from the medical community that everything within its power was being done to make the transition into the next realm as comfortable as possible.
In regards to the issue of physician-assisted suicide, its proponents often attempt to turn the tables on their Christian opponents with the following argument: “Since Christians should show mercy and compassion, they should therefore approve of physician assisted suicide.” While this may be difficult to counter initially in light of the immense pain the terminally ill often suffer from, upon closer reflection one will realize that mercy and compassion are not as intrinsically linked with this disputed medical practice as we have been led to believe.
If the advocates of euthanasia point out that while such efforts might diminish psychological anguish they do little to ease overwhelming pain, the Christian can respond that the goal ought not to be so much hastening death but rather directing research efforts towards addressing this physical trauma. As Rae points out, the cases where pain cannot be managed are increasingly rare; and in especially challenging cases under the principle known as “the law of double effect”, physicians are justified in increasing the patient’s level of medication to levels nullifying the pain even if one of the potential side effects is death. In such a scenario, death is not the intended result but rather an unintended consequence.
In these debates, it is often considered impolite to call someone’s motives into question. However, since the advocates of physician-assisted suicide have already insinuated that Christians leery of this practice rank up there with the Marquis De Sade for allowing suffering to continue, it would be a fair question to ask whether euthanasia’s enthusiasts are really all that concerned about the comforts of the critically ailing or simply hide behind such a seemingly humanitarian posture out of more materialistic motivations.
For despite hiding behind a cloak of compassion, many calling for physician-assisted suicide are just concerned about the bottom line, claiming that limited resources would be better directed towards salvageable human capital. As former Colorado Governor Richard Lamm said, “We have a duty to die”, no doubt emphasizing this obligation for the common man rather than his own loved ones.
Frederick Meekins is an independent theologian and social critic. Frederick holds a BS in Political Science/History, a MA in Apologetics/Christian Philosophy from Trinity Theological Seminary, and a PhD. in Christian Apologetics from Newburgh Theological Seminary.