This article on euthanasia looks at active and passive euthanasia, the relief of suffering, and the meaning of death in Jesus Christ.

Source: Reformed Perspective, 1995. 3 pages.


Your elderly father is dying. It is a very sad time for everybody. You don't want him to suffer. The doctor says that there is nothing more that can be done to make him better. He suggests stopping the treatment, making him comfortable and letting him die. What an agonizing decision to have to make. Would this be considered euthanasia?

Christians reject euthanasia. The deliberate killing of another person is against God's law, even in the name of “mercy” or “compassion.”

The current statutes of Canadian law hold that euthanasia is a crime, punishable by a minimum penalty of 10 years in prison. Section 229 of the Criminal Code defines euthanasia as culpable homicide or murder “where the person who causes the death of a human being means to cause his death.”

It is also a criminal offence to aid or counsel someone to commit suicide, even if the person voluntarily requests such assistance. (Section 241 of the Criminal Code provides a penalty of 14 years in prison for assisted suicide.)

Advocates of euthanasia believe that laws against euthanasia and assisted suicide should be changed because they interfere with the right to privacy. They also consider economic conditions and “quality of life.” Many people fear death and dread that their suffering will be prolonged by technology. Media images of helpless, terminally-ill patients abound and make one believe that the medical profession treats dying patients aggressively, prolonging the dying process.

The reverse is more likely to happen: doctors and family members are involved in deciding whether or not the patient should live.

What is Euthanasia?🔗

The original Greek meaning of euthanasia is “easy or good death.” Over time this meaning has been lost. Today an acceptable definition of euthanasia would be “to act or fail to act, so as to cause the death of a human being for the purpose of relieving suffering.” We could distinguish “active” from “passive” euthanasia, but must keep uppermost in mind that the intent remains the same. Whether the death is caused by lethal injection, smothering or shooting (active) or by withholding necessary treatment, food and water (passive), the victim is equally as dead: there is no moral distinction.

Other phrases you might hear are:

  • Voluntary euthanasia: when the person gives an informed consent.
  • Non-voluntary: when the person is not capable of giving consent.
  • Involuntary: when a person is capable of giving consent, but does not.

Most euthanasia proponents claim that they only want “voluntary” euthanasia, but a quick study of the history and current practice of euthanasia demonstrates how easily the “right” to die can become the “duty” to die (see Mary Senander, What you need to know about Euthanasia and the Right to Die).

Aren't Some Dying People Over Treated?🔗

There has never been a moral or ethical requirement to provide medical treatment which is futile or unduly burdensome to a dying patient. Allowing a person to die of natural causes is not euthanasia. Neither is respecting a patient's refusal of extraordinary treatment or giving drugs to ease suffering in a terminal illness, even if this may shorten his life.

Life is a gift of God. Death is unavoidable. It is true that death marks the end of our earthly existence, but at the same time, it opens the door to eternal life.

May We Remove Dad's Feeding Tube?🔗

May we remove Dad's feeding tube? No, not unless he is very near death and can no longer assimilate food and water. This provision is a matter of life and death. Without food or water, any living creature will die. Assisted feeding through a tube is neither extraordinary nor heroic. It is also not artificial. The food and water which pass through the feeding tube are real nutrition and hydration. Using the tube is no more artificial than sipping through a straw or eating from a spoon. Eating is not medical treatment.

Yet the debate over withholding food and water will continue. Over 50 courts have authorized the starvation deaths of non-dying people who were brain-damaged, comatose or otherwise vulnerable – in each case undermining protection for the rights and the lives of the disabled and the sick.

Leading proponents of legalized lethal injections have said the obvious: once people realize how painful it is to die from starvation, they will be more willing to accept the lethal injection.

Understanding the Terms🔗

A human being belongs to the species Homo sapiens and, as such, is a person throughout his whole life, also when dying. To say that a person on a ventilator, declared “brain-dead” “severely brain-damaged” or in a “persistent vegetative state” is certain to die and is therefore no longer a person, is to deny reality.

A person who is brain-dead, that is, with irreversible destruction and cessation of all functions, is dead. There is no circulation to the brain, including the brain stem. The body, once living, is now dead, a corpse. Profound loss of function and physical destruction will follow immediately. A computer cannot function without electrical current. A person with a spontaneous heartbeat, respiration and blood pressure is not (brain-)dead.

Brain-related criteria are not always based on valid scientific data. Dr. Fost writes in the Journal of Pediatrics, “There is deep disagreement… whether brain-death is synonymous with death.” Great care must be taken not to declare a person dead when he is still alive.

While his brain might be permanently damaged, he is still alive and should be cared for with the respect due any human being. A person cannot be a “little bit dead” any more than a woman can be a little bit pregnant.

Brain damage can be temporary or permanent, severe or mild. The words “unconscious,” “coma” and “persistent (or permanent) vegetative state” are used to describe severe brain damage.

A coma is defined as a state of unconsciousness in which a person does not react to stimuli and cannot be awakened. The condition is the result of damage to the brain cells from a traumatic head injury, near-drowning or an acute illness.

Patients who appear conscious but remain unresponsive after a period of time are often said to be in a persistent vegetative state (PVS). Experts disagree about what PVS really is. While standards have been proposed, they are not accepted by the entire medical community.

In our understanding of the euthanasia debate, we have to realize that the ultimate focus of the “right to die” people is not those who are truly dying, but those who are not dying quickly enough. People with severe brain damage can live for years if they are cared for. Such persons, however, can be seen to be burdensome and expensive.

Compassionate Relief of Suffering🔗

Pain is a more terrible lord of mankind than death. We all must die, but if I can save a person from days of torture, that is what I feel is my great and ever new privilege.Albert Schweitzer

Dr. Schweitzer did not think the solution to pain, psychological or physical, was the elimination of the person. The solution, in his eyes, was to relieve suffering by controlling the pain and caring for the sufferer. “I want to die” is the cry of a patient in need of relief. Such an outcry seeks to escape suffering and pain, not life itself.

Jack Kevorkian's advertisement reads: “Applications are being accepted. Oppressed by a fatal disease, a severe handicap, a crippling deformity? Dr. Jack Kevorkian will help you kill yourself free of charge.” How can any physician kill a patient for his own good?

Dr. Susan Block, a Harvard medical professor, told the 1990 International Congress on the Care of the Terminally Ill in Montreal that the number of requests for euthanasia is low.

In asking the physician to hasten death, I would argue that the patient is always asking to be given a reason to live. Requests for death have multiple messages and physicians have to listen carefully to what is communicated about the fear of pain, of being a burden, about depression and about false assumptions surrounding modern medicine's role in death and dying.

Once the patient feels welcome, and not a burden on others; once his pain is controlled, as it almost always can be… and when other unpleasant symptoms have been reduced to manageable proportions, the cry for euthanasia vaporizes, says Dr. Richard Lamerton, former outpatients' medical officer at St. Joseph's Hospice in London, England.

The Dutch experience reflects the truth of this statement. In Holland, where euthanasia is routine, over 85 per cent of terminally ill patients who requested it withdrew their request after appropriate palliation.

Hospice and Palliative Care🔗

Hospice care is a philosophy and a system of care that affirms life when those with irreversible diseases are approaching death. It provides support, and care for persons in the last phases of an incurable disease so that they may live as fully and comfortably as possible.

In most cases the withdrawal of any investigations and treatments which are no longer having their intended purpose is recommended. Hospice care involves a shift of treatment goals. The units are not restrictive. Visiting hours are flexible. Children and pets can visit. Family members are encouraged to help with daily care, thus strengthening bonds with loved ones. If someone prefers to die at home, all attempts are made to make this possible.

What is Our Role?🔗

As with abortion, euthanasia is society's lazy and unloving way to rid itself of responsibility and compassionate love for our neighbour. The real answer to this is for Christians to witness, both in personal convictions and in words, but above all by example, to the faith which gives us a joyful hope: “Death is swallowed up in victory” (1 Corinthians 15:54).

When a Christian speaks of a happy death, he is speaking of something much more than death without pain. Bodily existence will cease but only to give place to a fuller life.

Medical and nursing personnel have a special place in this Christian ministry. Doctors, despite the pressures of modern medicine, should be inspired by the honourable traditions to minister to patients as persons, not cases. More doctors and nurses should be encouraged to include geriatrics and terminal care among their specializations.

All Christians, in whatever place God puts us, have a share in the ministry of changing the attitude of our society, always prepared to speak of the hope that is within us (1 Peter 3:14).

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